I caught the closing segment of Earl Moxam's programme That's a wrap aired on RJR FM radio last week. The specific discussion mainly between Moxam and veteran journalist Franklin McKnight that got my attention concerned the ethical implications of public officials collecting donations from tobacco companies. This arose from a recent disclosure by tobacco control advocate Dr Knox Hagley that four parliamentarians had accepted cash donations from tobacco companies which they used to support community development projects.
Having worked as a social communicator for more than two decades, I have long followed and supported the anti-tobacco campaign and was especially interested in the views of journalists whose support remains a key target of the initiative at the national and global levels. Moxam and McKnight would be two of the best from which anti-tobacco campaigners could draw some conclusions about their advocacy strategies.
The question placed on the That's a wrap discussion agenda was whether it was morally wrong to accept donations from tobacco companies. Both panellists conceded that it was a dilemma about which they were yet to take a firm position. Both also acknowledged that money taken from the proceeds of tobacco sales is used to support many commendable development objectives: education, sports and health, to name a few. Against that background it was their contention that they could not sit in condemnation of those in receipt of such donations. Their unanswered question was: why should the parliamentarians or any public figure not accept donations from tobacco companies, especially for projects deemed worthy, while such companies are still required to pay taxes?
Unlike these journalists, the WHO and all anti-tobacco advocates have long been very clear on this issue. This is a case of "rendering unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's". The usual response is that taxes can never be equated with donations. Taxes represent money that belongs to the government and is unlikely to be used as a means of direct influence on state policy, as is the case with donations. Besides, research has categorically confirmed the damaging effects of tobacco on health and by extension on national economies.
Further, as the leading cause of preventable death globally, there is some evidence that tobacco has seen an upsurge in both its consumption and its fatality rate worldwide with the increasing interconnectedness of the global economy. Nearly every government now concedes that this reality calls for decisive action, hence the successful campaign in support of the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) treaty.
It took three years for negotiators to come to an agreement on the inherent terms. After being adopted by the World Health Assembly, the policy-making arm of the WHO, the FCTC officially went into effect in February 2005. Jamaica has been a signatory to the treaty since 2005. The treaty is supposed to be legally binding to some 176 countries, including Jamaica.
The FCTC seeks "to protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke" by enacting a set of universal standards stating the dangers of tobacco and limiting its use in all forms worldwide. To this end, the treaty's provisions include rules that govern the production, sale, distribution, advertisement and taxation of tobacco, and the treaty is particularly strong in its protective clauses pertaining to the youth market. Advocates contend that the FCTC standards are, however, minimum requirements, and signatories are encouraged to be even more stringent in regulating tobacco than the treaty requires them to be.
Regrettably, as Dr Hagley himself noted not very long ago, there are no severe penalties for its violation beyond embarrassment and public outcry. The consequences to the health of us as individuals and to our fragile economy, however, are painfully obvious.
Despite knowledge about the damaging effects of tobacco use, the industry continues to thrive, and worse, is constantly on the lookout for new users, which invariably means that the younger members of the population have become the main targets of tobacco marketing strategies. Hence, although the treaty effectively outlaws advertising and sale to minors, tobacco marketers have effectively shifted their approach. They have somehow managed to promote successfully an appeal to youngsters and women, especially, that it is "cool" to smoke.
They have managed to do this by clever positioning of their product within our national and global environments that have become media saturated. A tobacco-use study done in 2010 shows an increase over the 2006 period, albeit slight, in the number of youths in the 13 -16 age group in Jamaica who smoke. Data for Caribbean countries show that youngsters begin to experiment with smoking between ages 10 - 12. Also, that some 24 - 25 per cent of those in the mid 20-year-old group now smoke. This study suggests that there is a reversal of gains made in recent years. Indeed, while smoking at one stage appeared unpopular, many tobacco users now appear to be emerging from the closet and new ones are being won over. There is also concern that many of the users are not aware of the addictive potential of tobacco.
We also know that data on cancer prevalence indicate that the disease is as deadly as ever and that countries are obliged to pull out all the stops to be able to stall and halt its progress. The question is therefore not whether our economies can survive by taking steps to establish and sustain a hostile environment to tobacco and smokers, but assuming we are serious about the survival of life on our planet, as we know it, implementing the FCTC provisions is a non-negotiable commitment that we neglect at our peril. Indeed, that should be the "wrap" in moving forward.
On a more positive note, Webster Memorial United Church launched its annual Harvest Extravaganza on Sunday, September 23. This is scheduled to run until September 29, involving a range of activities including personal development services for all members and visitors.
If you want to learn more about the benefits of eating well and staying fit - the antithesis of smoking - this is the place to be. Sports nutritionist Patricia Thompson will kick off a series of presentations covering four personal development issues. Mrs Thompson will speak on "Nutrition and physical well-being". She will address some of the myths related to nutrition and physical fitness and the importance of making informed food choices. Three other presentations will be made by other special consultants in the respective fields. These are "Managing human resources" by Mrs Geraldline Wright, "How to manage your banking" by Mrs Claudette Stephen and "Caring for your house plants" by Mrs Jeanette Lindsay.
September 27 is also being promoted as "Medical Assistance Day" under the Harvest Extravaganza week-long programme of activities. People attending will be able to access several health-related services, including blood sugar and other diabetes-related tests, as well as eye testing. This activity will run from 10:30 to 3 pm. Admission is free and open to the public.