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The pandemic of tobacco-related diseases, global efforts to introduce tobacco control and the tobacco industry’s counter efforts to protect the market for its profitable and deadly products were key topics of discussion at the 5th Conference of The Union Asia Pacific Region in Sydney, Australia this week.

As the leading cause of preventable death and the leading risk factor for a wide range of non-communicable diseases, tobacco use is a major concern to all stakeholders in public health. It currently causes six million deaths each year.

In Sydney, Union tobacco control consultant Anne Jones and Prof Matthew Peters, Professor of Respiratory Medicine at Macquarie University, chaired a symposium on tobacco that covered several core and emerging issues:

Prof Peters spoke on the case for and against the use of e-cigarettes to reduce smoking and smoking-related disease – an area that remains highly controversial because long-term evidence on health impacts does not yet exist, and marketing for these products targets young people who may never have smoked. Because much tobacco control policy is often inapplicable to e-cigarettes, there are also concerns that this relatively new product could renormalise smoking.

Dr Gan Quan, Director of The Union China Office in Beijing, spoke about recent progress in tobacco control in China, home to 300 million smokers. Despite its entrenched smoking culture, China’s State Council is currently reviewing draft legislation for a national tobacco control law. A recent survey found 90 per cent of respondents favoured smokefree environments. These developments were unthinkable a decade ago.

Dr Tara Singh Bam, The Union’s Senior Technical Advisor in the Asia Pacific Region, discussed lessons learned from population-level tobacco control strategies for reducing smoking rates. Dr Singh Bam used specific examples from his extensive work which has included programmes in Indonesia, Myanmar and Nepal.

Prof Robyn Richmond of the University of New South Wales concluded the symposium by outlining the need for planning and developing the tobacco control workforce.

In a further look to future needs, Anne Jones spoke at a meet-the-expert session on the critical issue critical of funding for tobacco control – “What and how to use tobacco taxes as a funding mechanism for health financing”. Ms Jones, who was formerly CEO of ASH Australia, was lead author of The Union’s ‘Sustainable Funding Models for Tobacco Control’ published last year. She pointed out that raising tobacco taxes is not only a highly effective strategy for encouraging smokers to stop and discouraging non-smokers from taking up the habit – but also an excellent source of revenue to fund both tobacco control and other healthcare needs. This mechanism is now functioning well in the Philippines, for example, a development supported by The Union.

Finally, Dr Becky Freeman from the University of Sydney spoke on tobacco control’s successes and future challenges. Successes include the ratification of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control by 180 countries worldwide and considerable reductions in tobacco use in countries with comprehensive tobacco control laws. Challenges include preventing tobacco industry interference in policy development and implementation, countering tobacco industry legal challenges to high impact policy, and dynamic issues such as e-cigarettes and shisha pipes. Dr Freeman drew on examples from her own research to illustrate one of the tobacco industry’s latest strategies – using social media, such as Facebook and YouTube, to promote tobacco products, thereby circumventing tobacco advertising bans and reaching the one billion people who use these media daily.

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