Annual tobacco-related deaths are expected to reach 8.3 million by the year 2030, with 80 percent of them occurring in Asia, unless more is done to tighten trans-border controls on the trade, international health experts warned Monday.
"The only two epidemics that are encountering a major increase in the next 20 years are the tobacco epidemic and the HIV/AIDS epidemics," said Douglas Bettcher, director of the World Health Organisation's Tobacco Free Initiative.
According to WHO estimates, the current 5.4 million annual tobacco-related deaths, with 50 percent of them in Asia, will rise to 8.3 million by 2030 as multinational cigarette companies target the region's huge and still undeveloped market and transnational crime that takes advantage of smuggling opportunities, said Bettcher.
But the WHO is convinced that tighter laws on the tobacco industry could save 200 million lives by 2050, he said.
Bettcher was one of several tobacco industry experts attending an international conference hosted by the Thai government this week to highlight the need for better implementation of the international Framework Convention on Tobacco Control of the WHO, and to mull new legislation to improve trans-border controls over the trade.
The conference is discussing a new illicit-trade protocol that would clamp down on the huge illegal traffic in tobacco products, which costs governments an estimated 40 to 50 million dollars in lost tax revenues last year and accounted for 10.7 percent of the world trade in cigarettes, or about 600 billion out of the estimated 5,767 billion cigarettes sold in 2006.
The protocol, which would take more than three years to discuss and ratify, would include provisions such as setting up a global tracing and tracking system on all tobacco products to identify smugglers and counterfeiters.
"Smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes are sold at lower prices than legal products, contributing to higher consumption and greater rates of smoking-related illness and death," said Luk Joossens, senior policy advisor of the Framework Convention Alliance, comprising 300 organisations representing over 100 countries around the world.
The alliance was created to support the development, ratification, and implementation of the WHO framework treaty.
The Bangkok meeting will also discuss Thailand's proposal to draft a new international law banning all cross-border advertising of cigarette products.
"Cross-border advertising has a big impact on populations all over the world," said Hatai Chitanondh, president of the Thailand Health Promotion Institute.
Hatai has earned world respect for his successful anti-smoking campaign that has made Thailand "the gold standard" for anti-tobacco legislation in the region.
But Hatai said Thailand's anti-smoking legislation is undermined by the cigarette companies' use of trans-border advertisements, especially for popular sports events such as Formula One racing.
He said the tobacco companies spend between 300 to 400 million dollars a year in ads and sponsorships of Formula One, which reach 300 million Asian viewers on TV and the Internet.
Thailand's efforts to prevent smoking have also been undermined by a huge trade in cheap smuggled cigarettes.
"The price is down so people consume more, which is bad for people's health, and the government makes less tax, so we lose both ways," Hatai said.