Sunday, 31 August 2008

Wake up and smell the tobacco

By my good friend Nabila Pathan (God bless her )

For the past three decades, there has been a growth in intolerance and developing repulsion towards a certain community in the UK. This group are increasingly finding it tough to integrate their particular practice amongst many social settings and as a result, are finding themselves isolated and unable to fit in. A nation that once was for so long accepting and inclusive towards this community in all indoor public arenas has finally banned these individuals from their routine cultural practice. Thank goodness! Long live Britannia, long live the Queen. On moments like this, I am proud to be British.
Smokers no longer make-up the fabric of our indoor-public society. The battle against smoking has begun shifting attitudes and psyches. There are daily indications of this new phase from the media to social attitudes. The shock horror projected by many tabloids at Brittany Spears’ two year old son playing with a packet of Marlborough Lites and trying to mimic his mum’s smoking antics marks a strong shift in the media’s perception of smoking. Furthermore, speaking to people embarking on trying to find soul mates, there has been a stark move away from anyone trying to “make-do” and “put up” with Mr. or Miss eligible if they are a smoker. For many, the prospect of enduring a life with a partner who could possibly suffer premature death is a major turn-off in a prospective partner.
So whilst the war against smoking is beginning to be won in the UK and generally in the West, we are totally unaware of how we are inadvertently shrugging off our addiction to the developing world. Tobacco, a rich country problem, is soon to be a low to middle-income country problem because the number of smokers is decreasing in regions like the US, so American multinationals are now looking to aggressively target developing countries. Do not underestimate the fact that smoking will be the biggest killer in the developing world. Smoking related deaths are expected to surpass those caused by the Aids epidemic. Tobacco consumption will outstrip global population growth. By 2030, 10 million smokers will dye annually, 7 million deaths will occur in developing countries.
The statistics paint a bleak picture. We have the ability to predict an epidemic so far in the future and also have the knowledge to prevent it. Surely the window of opportunity is now? But unlike the other killers, smoking is a matter of civil liberty and is not an instant killer so therefore does not receive the same level of media attention than other epidemics such as the SARs virus, Aids, terrorism, Global warming. Along with the statistics, change therefore, from the bottom-up, looks equally bleak.
The only hope for change seems to be in the hands of the top-down approach. This means a complete reliance on global governance. But the forces that form global governance – international institutions, laws, regulations and agreements – are using measures to protect fledging industries in developed countries. Far from being part of the solution, Global governance will only exacerbate the inequality around the world as developing countries are forced to drop tariff barriers against highly successful international brands. What’s more, many Governments are courted by inward investment. China is a major problem as its Government owns cigarette manufacturing companies and draws profits from them.
The rich look set to get richer whilst the poor are on a down hill slope. At the moment, the only hope lies with two billionaires – Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg who will inject $500 million to promote strategies to reverse rise of smoking in China, India and Russia. Their generosity will certainly dwarf the current $20 million spent every years on anti-smoking campaigns in these regions. However, they are only two uber rich philanthropists amidst 950 billionaires. The combined annual income of the poorest is less than that of the 500 billionaires in the world. You do the maths. This global inequality set to be propelled by tobacco could easily be averted but the urgency is not realized, or should I say, not desired to be realized.
The vision for equality should be that all communities enjoy good health, access to education and be in control of their own destiny. Globally, tobacco receives poor financial commitment and human attention than other causes of death. This exacerbates deep inequality. It is both a moral imperative and a pragmatic necessity in terms of future global economics to diminish inequality. I’ve felt pride in the UK for beginning the process of kicking the habit. But I certainly feel no pride as a citizen of an unfair world.

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