Message of the Regional Director, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, on the occasion of World No Tobacco Day, 31 May 2016

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Every year on 31 May, we commemorate World No Tobacco Day, to highlight the dangers associated with tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke. On this day, we also renew our advocacy for effective policies to halt the tobacco epidemic. This is because tobacco remains the only legal consumer product that kills when used as intended by the manufacturer.

Every year, more than 5 million people die because they use tobacco products around the world. Another 600,000, who are non-smokers, die from exposure to second-hand smoke globally. In the African Region, about 146,000 adults aged 30 years and above die every year from tobacco-related diseases. This makes tobacco one of the leading preventable risk factors for non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic lung disease and diabetes. 

The theme of this year’s World No Tobacco Day is ‘Get ready for plain packaging’. Plain packaging of tobacco products refers to measures that require packages of all tobacco products to have a standard colour and style, and to bear only the name of the product. Plain packaging therefore restricts or prohibits the use of logos, colours, brand images and promotional information on packaging of tobacco products. 

Plain packaging also reduces the attractiveness of tobacco products, and eliminates the use of tobacco packaging as a form of tobacco advertising and promotion. Further, it limits misleading packaging and labelling, and increases the effectiveness of health warnings. It is an evidence-based measure that protects public health, can save many lives, and should be used in conjunction with other methods as part of a comprehensive multisectoral approach to tobacco control. 

Australia was the first country to fully implement plain packaging in 2012. The Australian law requires tobacco products to be sold in drab packages with large graphic images of tobacco-related diseases; packages may contain brand names, but no logos. Since then, Ireland, the United Kingdom and France have passed similar laws to implement plain packaging. And many other countries are formally considering legislation on plain packaging.

Evidence from Australia shows that this measure is working well. It is helping smokers to realize that all tobacco brands are harmful. The country indicated that the daily smoking rate declined from 15.1% to 12.8% between 2010 and 2013. As of now, no country in the African Region has adopted legislation on plain packaging. We are confident that when countries in our Region adopt this measure, the impact will be similar. 

Today, as we observe World No Tobacco Day 2016, I call upon Member States to prioritize measures that will lead to plain packaging. The adoption of a multi-sectoral approach to tobacco control will be critical. Countries should expand policies on packaging and labelling to include pictorial warnings. They should consider totally banning tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, in line with their obligations to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

I also urge individuals, households and civil society organizations to join us in marking World No Tobacco Day by raising public awareness on the public health benefits of plain packaging.

Let us work together to promote and implement plain packaging of tobacco products, so that, ultimately, we may decrease tobacco-related illnesses and premature death. Let us all get ready, because the time for plain packaging is now!