Editorial
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Editorial

More public scrutiny of tobacco industry

Up to 50 years ago smoking was generally considered as an acceptable habit. Governments even issued free cigarettes to soldiers and the tobacco industry’s advertising often linked tobacco use with glamour, sex appeal and energy. Then, in 1964, the US Surgeon General issued a report based on 7,000 scientific studies linking smoking with lung cancer, emphysema and other diseases. Since then, public scrutiny of the tobacco industry has become relentless.

When the Environmental Health Directorate banned all forms of tobacco advertising as from January 1, some wondered whether the Maltese regulators were resorting to draconian measures that limited the rights of individuals who should be allowed to practise any habit that was legal, however much it would endanger their health. Others, of course, take a very different approach. They insist the total ban on advertising is the only sure way of limiting an unhealthy practice that is endangering the health of many people. Some also ask why taxpayers should finance the cost of treating the often avoidable illnesses linked to smoking.

When the government decided on a total ban on tobacco advertising it was following a 2008 World Health Organisation directive. The director of WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative, Douglas Bettcher, said: “The tobacco industry employs predatory marketing strategies to get young people hooked to their addictive drug. But comprehensive advertising bans do work, reducing tobacco consumption by up to 16 per cent in countries that have already taken this legislative step. When one form of advertising is banned, the tobacco industry simply shifts its vast resources to another channel.”

Most governments are now making renewed efforts to make sure the regulations on the tobacco industry are rendered more effective. In 2009, the Tobacco Regulation Act was enacted in the US. It gives the Food and Drug Administration power to compel tobacco companies to eliminate potentially misleading labels like “light” and “mild” from their advertising.

There are some who argue that the Health Directorate should not discriminate against those who smoke because similar health threatening practices like excessive eating, use of polluting cars and abuse of alcohol remain generally uncontrolled. Surely, starting a campaign against a major unhealthy practice is better than doing nothing at all.

It is a sad fact that smoking among young people is again increasing and many doctors have publicly expressed particular concern about the increasing habit of smoking among young female teenagers who are tomorrow’s mothers. Anti-smoking educational campaigns are always an important tool in convincing young people about the importance of taking good care of their health, even at a time when they feel invincible with the vigour of youth.

The justification of a total ban on tobacco advertising will be more convincing if it is based on the positive argument of protecting the health of present and future generations on whom the prosperity of society depends. This consideration is perhaps far more impressive than the narrower argument of the excessive cost of treating those who ruin their health after years of smoking, even if this argument is a perfectly valid one.

By adopting the WHO directive on a total ban on tobacco advertising Malta has shown it is willing to be among the first to endorse best practice to protect the health of its people.

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