WASHINGTON--More than 40 groups, with strong representation from womens and girls organizations, have appealed to Congress to aggressively address the "global tobacco epidemic" and particularly its impact on Third World women.
"Without strong government and private sector intervention, the number of women smokers will nearly triple from 187 million to more than 530 million over the next generation--80% of these women will live in the developing world," said Judith Longstaff Mackay, MD, director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control, Hong Kong.
Speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference, Dr. Mackay, a senior advisor to the World Health Organization, represented incoming WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland, who has said she will make international tobacco control a major WHO priority.
The groups urged Congress to pass legislation that would end US government support for tobacco abroad; provide adequate funding for international tobacco control; impose a code of conduct on the US tobacco industry in its international activities; curb international tobacco smuggling; and impose a fee on tobacco companies to pay for international tobacco control.
Legislative Agenda to Fight Global Tobacco Use
End federal support for tobacco abroad. US officials would be prohibited from "attempts to weaken any foreign tobacco regulation, unless the regulation discriminates against US products in an arbitrary and unjustifiable manner and is not a reasonable means of protecting public health."
Adequately fund global tobacco control efforts. The groups seek creation of a private, nonprofit American Center on Global Health and Tobacco, supported by significant funds from Congress and organizations such as WHO and the World Bank, to assist other countries in fighting tobacco use.
Establish a code of conduct for labeling and advertising overseas. This would require US companies to print health warnings on tobacco products sold overseas as stringent as those required in the United States, and would bar US companies from selling, advertising, or marketing tobacco products to children in other countries.
Stop international tobacco smuggling. The US Bureau of Alcohol(Drug information on alcohol), Tobacco, and Firearms would be given authority to deter smuggling through a system of export permits and increased record keeping.
Force "Big Tobacco" to pay for international tobacco control. The groups ask Congress to require US tobacco companies to pay a fee for cigarettes sold overseas. This money would help pay for antitobacco efforts in those countries.
Among the organizations endorsing the package of legislation were the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the American Medical Womens Association, the Association for Women in Science, Girls Incorporated, the International Network of Women Against Tobacco, the National Womens Health Network, Wider Opportunities for Women, and the YMCA.
House members Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) pledged their strong support for the proposals at the press conference. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill) was listed as endorsing the call for new legislation.
"Just as these tobacco giants saw our grandmothers in America as the target--since their smoking rate was lower than our grandfathers--the tobacco industry sees the low smoking rate among women around the world as a gigantic marketing opportunity," Rep. Doggett said.
Rep. Pelosi noted that tobacco use by women in developing countries is low--only 3% in India. "The industry knows if it can just double that number in India, it can induce millions more into smoking."
Dr. Mackay said WHO projections indicate that 8% of women living in Third World nations now smoke and that without forceful intervention, 20% will smoke by 2025. "There is going to be a huge increase in developing countries of smoking adult women," she said. One result, she added, will be to raise lung cancer from the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among women worldwide to the leading cause, as it now is for men.
Tobacco Ads: Nothing Is Sacred
Several speakers detailed the massive advertising and promotion efforts of tobacco companies aboard. These included rock concerts where the price of admission is an empty cigarette pack; gift packages for women that include cigarettes; sponsorship of womens sports event; and, in the Philippines, calendars depicting religious figures. In one, the Virgin Mary appears to be praying over a display of the sponsors cigarette brands.
If tobacco companies can induce large numbers of women in Asia to smoke, it will make little difference to their profits what happens in North America or Europe, because by 2025 only about 15% of the worlds smokers will reside there, Dr. Mackay said.
Rep. Doggett criticized the Clinton Administration for its weak support for efforts in Congress to increase tobacco control worldwide. "We need this administration to reach above those who see cigarette exports as just another way of addressing the balance of payments," he said.
In suggesting federal legislation, the sponsoring groups argue that the United States, as the worlds leading exporter of tobacco products, "has a moral responsibility, as well as a special opportunity, to reduce the global burden of premature disease and death worldwide" that tobacco use causes.
"If tobacco is not good enough for the American people, if tobacco is not good enough for the children of America, how can we in good conscience allow the tobacco companies to spread this product to other countries?" Rep. Pelosi asked.