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To everyone working to reduce disease and premature death caused by tobacco, implementation of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is now the most important single target. Conversely, to the international tobacco industry, the prevention of full and effective implementation of the FCTC must be the topmost priority for trying to ensure that business goes on as usual. In Latin America, the industry must be drawing hope from the deal forged between two of the world’s largest tobacco companies, Philip Morris and British American Tobacco (BAT), with the health ministry in Mexico. Instead of backing proposals in parliament for larger, graphic health warnings, like those in Brazil, the ministry stuck with one small, ineffective panel on the back of the pack, leaving the design of the front unaltered (see "Mexico: backroom deal blunts health warnings" Tobacco Control2006;15:348–9).
In Argentina, as future tobacco control legislation was being debated recently, BAT began running advertisements in newspapers and on billboards, about health warnings. With sickening self-righteousness, the ads proclaimed that BAT was such a responsible company that it had increased - voluntarily, you understand - the size of the small, miserable, old-style, text-only health warning on its packs. Not to miss a promotional opportunity, accompanying the unctuous self-praise, the ads carried a picture of a pack with the new warnings - a somewhat larger, miserable, old-style, text-only health warning. Needless to say, it is pathetic compared with neighbouring Brazil’s world-leading warnings, packed with graphic depictions of various diseases people can get from smoking cigarettes. It can be assumed that a modest increase of size will not affect sales or the social acceptability of smoking, as Brazilian-style warnings would do, so the purpose of such a move can only be to persuade gullible politicians and opinion formers that a “responsible”, voluntary approach is much preferable to despoiling its intellectual property with nasty pictures of lungs and cancerous mouths.
Herein lies the real danger of such moves becoming acceptable to governments as an alternative to effective legislation as envisaged by the World Health Organization when framing the FCTC. Go down this route, the Mexican way, and we are right back to the dark days of the much discredited “voluntary agreement” system. By such confidence tricks, the tobacco industry held off effective tobacco control for more than two decades, adding needless tens of millions to the already massive toll of premature deaths caused by smoking.