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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Smoke Signals

Let me do a minor dissection of a piece from Wall Street Journal:

About 40% of countries still allow smoking in hospitals and schools, according to the WHO report. Additionally, only 5% of the world's population lives in countries with comprehensive national bans on tobacco advertising and promotion. Services to treat tobacco dependence are fully available in only nine countries.

Yet tobacco tax revenues are more than 4,000 times greater than spending on tobacco control in middle-income countries and more than 9,000 times greater in lower-income countries, the WHO says.

When the report says that 40% of the countries allow smoking in hospitals & schools, it fails to mention exactly what percentage of the population have the freedom to smoke in such places. I'm quite sure that those countries all are rich or poor. The rich think of smoking anywhere they want as a symbol of freedom and the poor don't care. Usually the middle-world countries like India & China which assign secondary preferences for personal freedom don't encourage such stupidities. There is no point in keeping a hospital sterile when the patients become passive smokers. Schools are cat-on-the-wall places where kids who're susceptible to peer pressure or who try to look smart & cool pick up the habit.

5% of the world's population lives in countries with comprehensive national bans on tobacco advertising and promotion. Now we're talking about population, which I think is a more concrete and useful figure compared to the % of countries where the actual number of smokers is hidden. I wonder if the lack of advertisements has any effect at all. Well, in a country like India where movie/cricket stars are demigods, their smoking may cause a considerable impact. But I still think the major driver here is your neighbor/friend/colleague/mate. When they stand next to you smoking, the chances are high that you either pick up the habit (given that you're vulnerable) or resume (how many times smokers quit) or increase your frequency (just for the sake of company). Moreover, there are alternatives when it comes to marketing: most of the alcohol beverage brands available in India advertise their.... yeah.. their music CDs.

Yet tobacco tax revenues are more than 4,000 times greater than spending on tobacco control... The writer again glosses over and fails to provide concrete numbers through which an educated reader can gain some insights. How much does a country spend on tobacco control? In middle-income countries, which is where I guess India & China would comfortably fall under, the fund allocated to combat such public menaces would line the pockets of bureaucrats and only a ludicrous amount would come into the fore. What kinds of techniques are used to fight tobacco? Billboards, radio/TV advertisements, short films... Do the government officials actually care about these messages reaching its intended audince? I'm not surprised at all that the tax revenues paid by cigarette manufacturers are thousand-fold the budget to fight smoke. This is the only way how it could be and the way the writer puts it hardly shocks me.

Fighting tobacco, comparable to quitting drugs or alcohol, involves a good deal of will and strong encouragement & support from family. I also believe that the formative years between 13 and 21 will heavily decide the course of one's personal traits. As for the WSJ piece, there are a few numbers & names thrown here and there, but not much food for thought.



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