On 31 May, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the global public health champions celebrate World No Tobacco Day (WNTD). Every year, on this date, we give tribute to the 8 million people who unnecessarily lost their lives as a result of tobacco use and pledge to do more on the path towards a tobacco-free world.
In 2020, the timing could not be better for reinforcing and celebrating tobacco control. This year, the world’s most important health treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), celebrated 15 years since its entry into force. At the core of the FCTC implementation philosophy is the principle of political engagement at the highest level and working collaboratively across stakeholders.
In Romania, my home country, decision-makers at the highest levels have committed to tobacco control policies as an effective strategy to reduce the burden of non-communicable diseases, despite constant interference from the tobacco industry. In the last 6 years, the President of Romania has been a key driver and facilitator of effective policy-making in tobacco control and frequently highlighted his support for this topic. Also, Romania has built up a strong civil society engaged in tobacco control as a recommended strategy for saving lives and avoiding unnecessary disease. The partnership between the Romanian Presidency and global tobacco control advocates resulted in a unique and historic event 'The Global Forum on Human Rights and a Tobacco-Free World', held on 26 March 2019 in Bucharest. It was then that I met Princess Dina Mired who shared the wealth of resources UICC provides for young professionals engaged in cancer control and determined me to be part of the incredible learning experience offered by the UICC Young Leaders Programme.
This year’s World No Tobacco Day celebrations will be held under special conditions due to COVID-19. The pandemic has highlighted to the world the fundamental importance of health to economic progress and society overall. It has revealed the vulnerabilities of health care systems, but also the strength of a global health community to mobilise expertise and resources, especially for the most vulnerable patients.
The tobacco control community raised its voice early on and was recently backed up by a WHO Statement, highlighting the dangerous link between tobacco use and respiratory diseases, evidence to date suggesting that smoking worsens outcomes for COVID-19 patients. The need to give up tobacco use has never been more evident. Also, as the epidemic situation unfolds, coordinated action is needed more than ever to provide healthcare professionals with the right tools to address tobacco dependence, helping smokers on their tobacco-free journey. Digital platforms like the one the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention (ENSP) has developed can provide useful materials to empower healthcare providers to approach, engage, and follow up with patients who smoke.
It was not only the public health community that mobilised during this unprecedented pandemic. Tobacco companies jumped at the opportunity to assist countries in ensuring an adequate supply of critical medical equipment. The tobacco industry is well known for its duplicity and interest in whitewashing its reputation. As other Governments experienced, The Ministry of Health of Romania was offered a donation of ventilators by one of the tobacco producers. Mindful about Romania’s commitments as Party to the FCTC, the Ministry of Health declined the offer. Despite the health emergency caused by COVID-19, we have to remain alert about cooperating with an industry that has an irreconcilable conflict of interest with public health and that sells an addictive product which causes cancer almost anywhere in the body.
Exposing tobacco tactics is also the theme of this year’s World No Tobacco Day campaign. On this occasion, the WHO aims to empower young people to join the fight to become a tobacco-free generation. The success of the FCTC over the last 15 years lays a solid ground for the work that still needs to be done. Every celebration moment comes with the understanding and the commitment that we will continue working shoulder-to-shoulder to help societies break free from the chains of tobacco and nicotine addiction.