The right to smoke a "smokescreen", say experts

04 April 2011

The thorny issue of a human-rights-based approach to tobacco control was debated at an international roundtable, hosted by the Faculty of Health Sciences on Tuesday 22 March as part of the university's Month of Transformation.

Professor Denver Hendricks, chair of the faculty's Transformation Committee, explained: "The idea underpinning this initiative is to mainstream tobacco control into the human rights, good governance and rule of law framework."

In addition, the intention is for tobacco control to be integrated as a pivotal women's and children's rights issue, to the advancement of the Millennium Development Goals and the human rights agenda. These objectives were introduced by Professor Richard Daynard and Dr Rangita de Silva from Northeastern University in the US. The two have successfully initiated tobacco control partnerships in over 15 countries.

Speakers from the National Council Against Smoking (NCAS), the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), the Medical Research Council and UCT's School of Public Health were given the opportunity to educate the roundtable participants about tobacco control issues, and their organisations' particular approaches to tobacco control.

"Tobacco use has to become less and less normal, more and more an unacceptable behaviour," said Peter Ucko of the NCAS. The discussion continued, focusing on issues such as the particular vulnerability of women and children to tobacco-related diseases, the objectifying of women in tobacco advertising, and the "glamorising" of smoking in the popular media.

Professor Leslie London of UCT's School of Public Health pointed out that protecting a human right can infringe on the rights of others; and in this instance, it can be argued that protecting people from the harmful effects of tobacco use infringes on the right of the individual to make use of tobacco products. But the premise that effective tobacco control is for the public good entrenches the right to enforce it, he added.

Some of the solutions presented included instituting legal action against tobacco companies and prohibiting the sale of cigarettes.

One of the outcomes of this meeting is that the partner organisations will meet to plan the implementation of a pilot programme in schools, to mobilise students concerning the issue of tobacco control and to advocate for changes to legislation.

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