McCabe Centre for Law staff

The key role of law in global and national tobacco control

31 May 2017

Jonathan Liberman, Director
McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer

On World No Tobacco Day 2017, Jonathan Liberman shares some of his more than 20 years of experience in tobacco control and his love for how the law can drive positive change.

It’s now a little over 5 years since the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) and Cancer Council Victoria (CCV) jointly established the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer. We celebrated our fifth birthday just a few months ago, on World Cancer Day in February. Our mission is to contribute to the effective use of the law for cancer prevention, treatment, supportive care and research.

The theme of this year’s World No Tobacco Day Tobacco – a threat to development resonates deeply for us.

It’s the first World No Tobacco Day (WNTD) to fall during one of our intensive legal training programs (ILTP). This program builds capacity among government lawyers from low- and middle-income countries in using the law for cancer and non-communicable disease (NCD) prevention and control, with a focus on achieving coherence across health, trade, investment and sustainable development. We’re privileged to have with us here in Melbourne 18 wonderful participants from across different sectors of government in 15 countries – Brazil, Colombia, The Gambia, Indonesia, Kenya, Kiribati, Maldives, Mexico, Mongolia, Namibia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Tonga. We’ve now had almost 120 participants from 55 countries over 6 courses, since we started running the program in 2014.

Tobacco is the single greatest focus of our program, for two main reasons:

  1. The scale of the harm caused by tobacco: In 2015, smoking was responsible for 6.4 million deaths around the world – that is a staggering 11.5% of global deaths. Tobacco use costs the world economy USD1.4 trillion a year. Around 80% of the world’s 1 billion smokers live in low- and middle- income countries. It’s for very good reason that tobacco is the subject of a global treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), and that implementation of the treaty is specifically included in the Sustainable Development Goals.
  2. The central role of law in reducing the tobacco burden: The effective use of law lies at the heart of combating tobacco use and its health, social, economic and environmental harms. Governments need to effectively regulate the tobacco industry to protect the health of their people, and they need to be ready and able to defend their laws against legal challenges by the tobacco industry, an occurrence that has become all too common over the last decade.

Through our training program, both our biannual intensive Melbourne courses and related regional and national workshops that we’ve run with partners in Denmark, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Russian Federation, Norway and South Africa, we’ve met extraordinary people doing fantastic work – developing, implementing and enforcing legislation in politically challenging circumstances; defending their governments in court proceedings against multinational tobacco companies armed with unlimited litigation budgets and an incentive to drag court proceedings on for as long as possible; and generously sharing their knowledge, experience and expertise with their counterparts in other countries.

For our part, we’ve been able to share with the rest of the world many of the lessons that Australia has learned through being the first country in the world to introduce tobacco plain packaging, and to defend its laws against legal challenges domestically (in our High Court) and internationally (under a bilateral investment treaty and in the World Trade Organization). We’ve done this in our role as the Convention Secretariat’s Knowledge Hub on legal challenges to implementation of the WHO FCTC, a role we took on in December 2013, and have performed with great pride ever since. We’ve been able to do all this because of the longstanding global tobacco control leadership of the Australian Government and the support it has provided to our work over the last 5 years, both the Department of Health, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), which is the primary supporter of our ILTP. One of the highlights of our current course has been a session at which officials from Health, DFAT and the Attorney-General’s Department joined us from Canberra to share the Australian Government’s experience and lessons learned through defending international trade and investment challenges.

For me personally, it’s been an incredible gift to be able to use my legal training, and my love for the law, in such meaningful and exciting ways.

Next year will mark 20 years since I had the very good fortune of stumbling my way into a role working on a CCV State tobacco control project, a young lawyer hoping to somehow use my law degree to do some good, with little idea of the opportunities that lay ahead.

We wish all our friends and partners around the world a very successful WNTD. Let’s commit to scaling up our collective efforts to tackle this terrible epidemic of premature and unnecessary death, disease and suffering. We have a global treaty and sustainable development agenda to support us, and the power of law on our side.

About the author

Jonathan Liberman is Director of the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, a joint initiative of Cancer Council Victoria and the Union for International Cancer Control based at CCV in Melbourne, Australia.

The McCabe Centre’s mission is to contribute to the effective use of the law for cancer prevention, treatment, supportive care and research. Jonathan is a lawyer with nearly twenty years' experience in legal and policy research, advice, training and technical support relating to cancer control at both domestic and global levels.

Last update: 
Friday 20 April 2018