Statement by Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, regarding WHO’s policy on reducing tobacco production

The International Tobacco Growers’ Association (ITGA), during its forum in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia last week, has publicly stated that WHO’s tobacco control policies are a threat to the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of families. I want to emphasize that the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) is resolved to defend and protect all people – including those reliant on tobacco – from the devastating health and economic impact of the tobacco epidemic and such a statement is counter to the spirit of the efforts of the WHO and of the WHO FCTC.

1.6 million people die every year in the WHO European Region from tobacco. Compared to the rest of the world, the European Region has one of the highest proportions of deaths attributable to tobacco. 16% of all deaths among adults over 30 are due to tobacco. This is in contrast to the WHO African (3%) and Eastern Mediterranean Regions (7%), the global average being 12%.

In fact, several occupational risks related to tobacco growing are well known, including green tobacco sickness, pesticide intoxication, respiratory and dermatological disorders and cancers at certain sites. Poor children in developing countries, who are frequently employed in tobacco farming to provide essential family income, commonly suffer exploitation through long hours and very low wages, denial of educational opportunities and exposure to toxic pesticides. Although tobacco growing is not the only form of agricultural production with harmful exposures, pesticides used in tobacco farming are especially toxic and can lead to chronic health problems especially when used without protective equipment. Children are also vulnerable to green tobacco sickness from nicotine absorbed through the skin from handling wet tobacco leaves.

The WHO FCTC, in Articles 17 and 18, strongly recognizes the need to specifically protect tobacco-growing farmers, tobacco workers and individual sellers. So far, 176 countries, globally, have ratified the treaty. The international community is thus committed to a shared goal of protecting those reliant on tobacco farming. It has been fully recognized that much work remains for us, and in this context, a working group was established to focus on economically sustainable alternatives to tobacco growing. The report by the working group will be discussed at the upcoming global Conference of the Parties in Seoul, Republic of Korea, in November this year.

I would like to provide full support and reinforcement to the WHO FCTC as a powerful legal instrument to help us stop the tobacco epidemic. The European Region has the highest number of Parties with an obligation to implement the treaty to protect health. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Turkey are among Parties to the treaty in the Region. Countries acceded to the treaty as they care about their populations. I strongly believe that together, with collective action, obstacles can be overcome and we can protect all people and save lives.