WHO raises alarm as 11 mn adolescents use tobacco products in South-East Asia

WHO on Thursday called for the need to protect children from the interference of the tobacco industry.
Representative Image.
Representative Image.

NEW DELHI: Noting that a worrying 11 million adolescents are using various tobacco products in the South-East Asia Region, the highest globally, the WHO on Thursday called for the need to protect children from the interference of the tobacco industry.

On the occasion of World No Tobacco Day which falls on May 31, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said young people across the world are calling for the tobacco industry to stop targeting them with products that are harmful to their health.

It said that they are calling on governments to adopt policies to protect them from the manipulative practices of tobacco and related industries.

“This includes the relentless marketing of their dangerous products through social media and streaming platforms,” said Saima Wazed, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia Region (SEARO).

The tobacco industry is luring youth by aggressively introducing new nicotine and tobacco products such as electronic cigarettes and heated tobacco products. “These are becoming increasingly popular with the youth in our Region. It is worrying that children and adolescents are regularly exposed to the digital marketing of tobacco products. This is despite having policies and regulations in place to prevent this,” she added.

The fight against tobacco is particularly important for the Region, which includes India, as the tobacco industry’s targeting of youth is rampant across the Region, the WHO SEARO head said.

“As a result, we have a very worrying 11 million adolescents using various tobacco products. Coupled with the approximate 411 million adult tobacco users, our Region, unfortunately, has the highest number of adolescent and adult users globally,” she said.

She warned that the situation is likely to get worse, as youngsters spend more time on social media and other similar platforms.

“Personalized and targeted advertising by the industry appears to dominate here, exposing them to harm. This multibillion-dollar industry recruits ‘new’ users to reward their investors with even more profits. To achieve this, it preys on children and adolescents through marketing tactics, targeting them with new products. The tobacco industry moves with speed to launch new products, using every means to expand market share before regulations can catch up,” she added.

The tobacco industry continues to oppose evidence-based measures, such as increases in excise taxes, and comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotions, and sponsorships. They even threaten legal action against governments that try to protect the health of their citizens, she added.

Unfortunately, she said, the response from governments and institutions is lagging and the efforts get complicated by the rapid changes in the marketing strategies of the tobacco industry.

For this, the relevant provisions of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) – including Article 5.3 – should be implemented in letter and spirit.

Also, tools and support are urgently needed to facilitate monitoring and implementation of the WHO FCTC recommendations in ‘online’ settings.

She said the goal for youth is clear.

“We want to prevent and reduce tobacco consumption, nicotine addiction, and exposure to new tobacco products. To do this, we need a multistakeholder approach to frame and implement legislation, policies, regulations and administrative measures,” she said.

“This approach needs to cast a wide net. We should engage with all relevant government departments, UN and intergovernmental organizations, civil society, the private sector, academia, and the community, including students, teachers and parents,” she said.

A generational tobacco ban, leading to a ‘Tobacco-Free Generation’, would be a huge step forward for our Region. For this to happen, the WHO FCTC must be recognized as a legally binding international instrument by all our Member States.

“This ban will require effective enforcement of existing policies, including confronting tobacco industry interference and institutional corruption surrounding the illicit tobacco trade,” she added.

For this to happen, the governments and tobacco control advocates in the Region must proactively take an evidence-based stance that pre-empts biased arguments against progressive tobacco control measures.

“The opportunity to pass a generational ban must be supported with political will, clear foresight, and pragmatic implementation. Only then can we realize the goal of a ‘Tobacco-Free Generation’ across our Region in the very near future. We owe our youth nothing less,” Wazed said.

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