In a recent address to over 180 nations in New Delhi, President Maithripala Sirisena proudly described Sri Lanka’s progress in combatting the world’s leading cause of preventable death: tobacco use. The countries had assembled to deliberate on the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a treaty that obligates countries to implement proven measures to reduce tobacco use. Some of these measures include increasing tobacco taxes, properly warning consumers about the dangers of tobacco use, restricting the misleading marketing tactics of tobacco companies and requiring public spaces to be smoke-free.
In Sri Lanka – and around the world – there has been tremendous progress made in both adopting these measures and reducing the devastating toll of tobacco. Yet, tobacco use remains the leading cause of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and lung cancer. As recently as 2015, smoking-related diseases caused 8.5 percent of deaths in Sri Lanka. That’s over 20,000 lives lost annually to a completely preventable cause. And yet, more than 30 percent of men in Sri Lanka still continue to use tobacco.
This high level of tobacco use is no accident. Tobacco companies have been increasingly targeting low- and middle-income countries like Sri Lanka in a deadly effort to boost the industry’s already massive profits.
But the world is fighting back. Thanks to the leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena, public health organizations, and philanthropists, global tobacco sales are declining for the first time in decades.
Last week, notable tobacco control advocate, philanthropist, and former New York City Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, announced that he is reaffirming his commitment to tobacco control by investing US$360 million to combat the tobacco epidemic in low- and middle-income countries. This investment brings Bloomberg’s commitment up to nearly US$1 billion.
Over the course of 10 years, the initiative run by Mayor Bloomberg’s foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, has expanded to more than 110 countries where it has helped adopt evidence-based polices and saved an estimated 30 million lives from the damaging harms of tobacco use. Sri Lanka is one of the countries that has benefited from the Bloomberg Philanthropies over the past few years.
In 2015, Mayor Bloomberg joined with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create the Anti-Tobacco Trade Litigation Fund to provide funding and legal support for governments facing legal challenges from tobacco companies. This fund was critical in Uruguay’s resounding defeat of Philip Morris in an international trade case, just one of a series of significant legal defeats suffered by the tobacco industry this year.
This emerging era of diminished influence for the world’s giant, multinational tobacco companies is due in a large part to the strong government leadership from enlightened leaders like President Sirisena and the commitment of Mayor Bloomberg and Bloomberg Philanthropies. . The National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol is grateful for the commitment of those leaders in standing up to tobacco on behalf of all Sri Lankans in the face of this horrible epidemic. We are cautiously hopeful that with the President’s leadership and the support of the Minister of Health, Dr. Rajitha Senarathna, along with the officials and the civil society tobacco will soon become a sunset industry in our country.
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