Materia Medica Malaysiana

May 30, 2004


Filed under: Uncategorized — malaysianmedicine @ 3:56 pm

POISON CONTROL: The tobacco lobby and its tall, tall tales

TOBACCO companies have always insisted that their products contribute to the economic well-being of tobacco-growing countries.

This is not the case. In fact, the opposite is true, for tobacco increases poverty. This will be among the facts and figures that will be released tomorrow, World No-Tobacco Day.

Aptly, the theme this year is “Tobacco and Poverty: A vicious circle.”

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), tobacco is the fourth most common risk factor in diseases worldwide.

It is a leading cause of death in Malaysia, incurring high public health costs in treating tobacco-related diseases.

It deprives families of breadwinners and nations of a healthy workforce.

Moreover, on average, the expenditure of households, especially the poor, on tobacco products (estimated between four and five per cent of all their disposable income) diverts scarce resources away from many basic needs of the families.

These include food and other essential needs such as nutrition and even schooling.

In cases where family members are deprived of schooling, tobacco-induced poverty is perpetuated. It has been observed that individuals with no schooling are more likely (seven times in the case of China, five times in Brazil) to smoke than those with tertiary education.

Thus the vicious cycle of poverty continues.

So too, when family members are deprived of food, leaving them open to malnutrition which causes further “unnecessary” health expenditure.

Malnutrition can be easily averted if money is spent only on food and not wasted on cigarettes.

In Bangladesh, for example, more than 10 million people need not suffer malnutrition if 60 per cent of the money spent on tobacco is spent on food instead.

The situation worsens when tobacco users and families become prone to some form of illnesses, reducing their productivity.

In a 1994 report, WHO estimated that the use of tobacco resulted in an annual global net loss of at least US$200 billion (RM760 billion).

A third of this loss is attributed to developing countries, like Malaysia, one of the countries said to suffer a negative balance of trade in tobacco products of over US$100 million.

Generally, 75 per cent of tobacco users worldwide are in developing countries, spurred by the neglect of tobacco control, and readily exploited by the tobacco industry.

In stark contrast to the decline in tobacco use in many developed countries in recent years, the reverse is the case in developing and under-developed countries.

Of the 5.7 billion cigarettes smoked each year, 60 per cent are lit up in developing countries.

But more and more governments, development agencies and donors are beginning to realise the wide-ranging implications of tobacco use, that they go far beyond health to include poverty.

In addition, as far back as 1999, in a report entitled “Curbing the Epidemic, Governments and the Economics of Tobacco Control”, the World Bank “systematically and scientifically demolished doomsday scenarios of economic loss that have deterred policy-makers from taking action”.

This effectively rebuts claims by the tobacco industry and its lobbyists that policies directed at reducing the demand for tobacco (such as to increase tobacco taxes) would cause long-term job losses.

All along, the industry has fooled policy makers into believing that implementing policies unfavourable to the industry will harm the economy.

But the fact is that tobacco actually drives the vicious poverty circle as articulated in this year WTND theme. Not to mention other forms of “poverty”.

For example, planting tobacco results in nutrients being leached from the soil, and it also poisons the soil because of the high level of pesticides and fertilisers used.

Tobacco growing generally harms the environment as indicated in a recent study that assessed the amount of forest and woodland consumed annually for curing tobacco.

It was concluded that nearly five per cent of overall deforestation in tobacco growing countries was due to tobacco cultivation.

It is evident thus that tobacco not only impoverishes the users and their families, but also damages the environment.

It puts undue strains on national financial and human resources, resulting in increased health-care costs, lost productivity due to illness, misery and early death.

It is therefore clear that the Malaysian Government has no choice but to act immediately to change its tobacco policies. The country has been bleeding economically with millions of its citizens senselessly caught up in the addiction.

The industry must be treated with suspicion when it lobbies for favours. Indeed, the World Bank has argued that the claims and data used by the industry thus far “greatly misrepresent the effects of tobacco control policies”.

More compelling still, the Government needs to send a very positive signal that it is serious in its efforts to further eradicate poverty.

It would be a most embarrassing contradiction if the “poverty-causing” and “poverty-sustaining” tobacco industry, as WHO has described it, is given “licence” to perpetuate poverty.

To help eliminate poverty is to break the vicious poverty circle which tobacco use helps to perpetuate. This is best done by eliminating tobacco use.

* The writer is the Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia. He can be reached at

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