The first International Conference on Health Promotion was held in Ottawa on the 21st day of November 1986, and its charter was presented for action to achieve Health for All by the year 2000 and beyond. The charter stated that ‘health promotion’ is the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health. It called for ‘joint action [that] contributes to ensuring safer and healthier goods and services’.
The judicial process is one way of ensuring safer and healthier goods and services, although recently we had the ‘unhealthy’ example of Ceylon Tobacco Company, almost fully owned by British American Tobacco, successfully reducing the size of pictorial health warnings on cigarette packs through a judicial process.
Sophisticated campaigners are expected to take the corporations that sell us unsafe and unhealthy goods and services to Court thus ensuring an ‘Ottawa’ style health promotion. One would expect such action to happen in Colombo first so the less sophisticated in the outstations would take a leaf out of the book of the Colombo Health Promotion story.
However when one looks at what really happens, there unfolds a contrastingly different story. It seems the outstations are teaching Colombo a hard lesson, although it comes sporadically.
"The judicial process is one way of ensuring safer and healthier goods and services, although recently we had the ‘unhealthy’ example of Ceylon Tobacco Company, almost fully owned by British American Tobacco, successfully reducing the size of pictorial health warnings on cigarette packs through a judicial process"
In 2008, newspapers reported of a remarkable landmark Court case from Polonnaruwa. The Court of Appeal in a historic judgment held that a widow from Sevagama, Polonnaruwa had taken a course of action to claim compensation from Ceylon Tobacco Company for the death of her husband, who died of cancer as a result of smoking cigarettes. She claimed Rs.5 million as compensation and won her case at the District Court. The Tobacco Company appeal to the Appeal Court against the District Court Order was dismissed with cost.
In the same year, there were unverified reports from Uhana, Ampara, that a PHI informed Court about the misleading nature in a TV commercial of a major calcium-enriched milk brand.
The Court is said to have issued an order to change or remove the said commercial from circulation. In a subsequent year, newspapers reported that a Health Ministry spokesman had revealed that its Food Advisory Committee had taken issue over an Anlene television advertisement and compelled the company to remove it.
He is reported to have said: “There was a segment in the particular advertisement where it indicates that the woman will not be able to lift her children after getting osteoporosis and implying she should drink Anlene milk to overcome that. The committee felt this particular segment induced fear among the public.”
In 2011, Kahatagasdigiliya Magistrate ordered, according to reports, the manufacturers of Astra margarine to specify in their margarine packets that Astra margarine is harmful to children less than three years of age due to one of its chemical components, namely E-319. The Court Order was based on a case filed by a Anuradhapura PHI bringing to the notice of the Court this lapse of the Astra margarine manufacturers.
Again in a case filed by another PHI in 2014, comes a remarkable report from faraway Dehiattakandiya that the Dehiattakandiya Magistrate’s Court had decided to proceed with a court case filed against two people who had hired a youth under the age of 21 to sell cigarettes. The defence lawyers made many attempts to thwart the hearing of the case but were unable to swing the judge’s decision in their favour. The judge has decided that this case is within the purview of the National Authority of Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA) Act and the PHI is a rightful representative of NATA.
This example of a joint action in health promotion is exceptional due to its powerful message: We are watching! The health ‘destroyers’ in this country are under watch by health promoters. The judgement is a coherent, comprehensive, and an articulate signpost for the future of health promotion.
Citizens campaigning for health promotion, especially some PHIs, have been able to effect strong action that contributes to ensuring safer and healthier goods and services for us in this country. These actions have been happening in faraway places such as Dehiattakandiya and Kahatagasdigiliya. Perhaps it is time for those in Colombo and major cities to take a leaf out of the books of these brave men and women.