Advancing in tobacco control amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

September 18, 2020


Despite the difficult circumstances the world is currently facing, tobacco control initiatives continue to advance.

Parties to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) and to the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products (Protocol) are making progress in their respective jurisdictions. It is very encouraging to see the continuous commitment of Parties during these challenging times.

The Convention Secretariat has adapted to this “new normal” through implementing many activities by virtual means, thereby ensuring its ongoing support to Parties.

New Parties to the WHO FCTC and to the Protocol and more accomplishments in tobacco control

Recently, Egypt, Hungary, Kenya, and the Netherlands became Parties to the Protocol raising the number of Parties to 62.

The Convention is also moving forward, with the inclusion of the Principality of Andorra as a new Party to reach the 182 Parties.

Progress in implementation of the WHO FCTC include banning the sale of flavoured cigarettes in the European Union Member States. The use of flavours is a well-known strategy of the tobacco industry, aiming to increase the attractiveness of its products for young people and non-smokers, reducing the harshness of smoking tobacco products, as well as giving the mistaken impression that these products are less harmful.

Ethiopia’s parliament approved a landmark bill to increase taxes on tobacco products. In the Netherlands, a majority in the Dutch parliament voted to end the sale of tobacco in supermarkets and petrol stations.

The Republic of Kazakhstan approved a comprehensive set of tobacco control measures as part of the so-called Health Act. This legislation is finally adopted after strong efforts by the tobacco industry to interfere in this regulation process.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the following countries temporarily banned use of waterpipes in all indoor and outdoor public places: Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan (including delivery of waterpipes), Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates (in Ajman and Dubai; already banned in Sharja previously) and Yemen.

More accomplishments through the FCTC 2030 project

The FCTC 2030 project, led by the Convention Secretariat and generously supported by the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia, continues to provide support to 24 low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) selected for the project. This project offers support to LMICs for stronger tobacco control, including capacity building and technical assistance from the Convention Secretariat, World WHO, UN Development Programme and a range of experts from different countries.

Currently, work is underway to develop WHO FCTC investment cases for FCTC 2030 project countries, a key element of the project, to present the economic costs of tobacco and the economic benefits that would accrue through implementation of main elements of the WHO FCTC at country-level. So far, more than ten WHO FCTC investment cases in FCTC 2030 project countries have been completed. Data collection by project countries has also been supported. Also many FCTC 2030 project countries have been developing proposals for new tobacco control policies and legislation to protect people from the harms of tobacco. Project countries are also continuing to develop their capacities to offer tobacco cessation services to the many tobacco users that want to quit for good.

Despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, FCTC 2030 project countries have continued to prioritize implementation of the WHO FCTC and innovative methods of providing support to LMICs were employed.

Recently, a virtual WHO FCTC Needs Assessment mission was conducted in Armenia. The Needs Assessment was undertaken in partnership with the Ministry of Health of Armenia, the Convention Secretariat, WHO and UNDP, and was the first ever needs assessment conducted virtually. The mission team held bilateral meetings with key stakeholders, discussed Armenia’s status of implementation of the WHO FCTC and identified priorities to be addressed. The Convention Secretariat is now working with other project countries to explore whether a virtual Needs Assessment would help them.

To control this devastating COVID-19 pandemic, reduce its tragic death toll, and save lives, there is a critical and urgent need for global coordination and unwavering solidarity. The Convention Secretariat together with other United Nations agencies and international organizations, communities and other stakeholders, has also a role to play.

Health is important to development, the economy and every aspect of human life. The WHO FCTC is an accelerator for sustainable development, and together with the Protocol, when fully implemented, will collaborate to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

As countries move to the recovery phase from the COVID-19 pandemic, the implementation of both the WHO FCTC and the Protocol should be included in the recovery plans, taking into account that fiscal measures on tobacco products and the control of the illicit trade of these products can increase government revenues in a moment when resources are so sorely needed. In addition, offering tobacco cessation will be important taking into account that smokers and people living with noncommunicable diseases, for which tobacco is the main common risk factor, are the ones with the worst outcomes if they are infected with the SARS-COV2 virus.

Last, but not least, today more than ever, Parties need to protect tobacco control efforts from the commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry, even when the industry attempts to portray itself as a good corporate citizen offering help to fight some of the problems that the industry itself creates.

The Convention Secretariat stands ready to support all Parties in their efforts at national and local level.