Switzerland’s government signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control on 25 June 2004. In doing so, the Federal Council signalled its willingness to implement it in Switzerland. However, nearly two decades later, ratification of the convention is still one of the Federal Council’s objectives. How is that possible?
The main reason why Switzerland is still not able to walk the talk is its legislation. Despite its healthy, environmentally friendly image, Switzerland still has one of the most lax rules on tobacco in Europe. And there seems to be no coincidence that two of the world's major tobacco companies have their headquarters here.
Back in 2017 the Swiss Cancer League, together with a broad alliance of health organisations and other NGOs, decided to change this. We started an initiative to ban advertising of tobacco products and electronic cigarettes targeting minors in Switzerland. In 2019, we collected more than 100,000 signatures in favour of putting it to the popular vote.
In 2021, however, the Swiss government recommended a ‘No’ vote, although Health Minister Alain Berset admitted that the indirect counter-proposal did not go as far as the Swiss Federal Council would have hoped for.
Following a difficult campaign, in which opponents received massive support from the tobacco industry (their fundings were estimated to be at least six times ours), the initiative won the popular vote on 13 February 2022. 56.6% of voters supported our initiative. A majority of the country’s 26 cantons also backed the proposal, allowing it to pass. Since popular initiatives in Switzerland often fail to gather the majority of the cantons, this victory was a historic one.
Our force lies in the united voice of all the organisations involved. As health professionals, we know what we are talking about and are therefore perceived as strong and credible advocates for future generations.
We do not engage in the substantively weak and sometimes untrue insinuations of our opponents, but consistently pursue our main messages, which are based on a scientifically proven and strong set of arguments.
During the campaign, we made targeted use of our tight budget and deployed it where we knew we could have the most impact: in the “swing cantons” and online.
The moment when it became clear that we had won this initiative was very emotional. The campaign team had gathered in a restaurant in Berne and victory was within reach. In 2022, long after their neighbouring countries, the Swiss voters finally backed a ban on tobacco advertising anywhere young people might see it.
Journalists from all over the world wanted our reactions to the result. “The successful campaign is an historical step forward in tobacco prevention and health promotion in Switzerland,” said Hans Stöckli, Member and former President of the Coucil of States and Chair of the initiative’s committee to the press. A few months later the WHO awarded him with a World No Tobacco Day Award for his outstanding comittment.
The federal authorities must now implement the new requirements of the initiative and adapt the Swiss law on tobacco products accordingly. The initiative’s committee will follow this process closely and work to ensure that the will of the people is now quickly implemented so that the WHO Convention can finally be ratified.
The Swiss Cancer League will continue to engage in other measures to fight lung cancer. It is one of the five most common types of cancer in Switzerland, accounting for 4,700 new diagnoses per year, and the most frequent cause of cancer-related death in cancer patients, amounting to 3,300 deaths per year.
The Cancer Screening Committee (CSC) is expected to publish its recommendations on lung cancer screening in November, following the current national and international discussions on the topic, as well as new evidence from available studies that show the benefits of low-dose computer tomography.
Based on the recommendations of the CSC, we will consider engaging for the possible introduction of a lung cancer screening programme in Switzerland.