Speech at WMAs Council Session

By Minister of Health and Care Services Bent Høie

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to speak at the opening of this Council meeting in the World Medical Association in Oslo. Medical doctors are the cornerstone in the clinical management of sick people, but you also have important roles in communicating to your patients and to a wider audience, the importance of healthy lifestyles and preventive medicine. A representative from my Ministry has earlier today shared our experiences with an advertising ban on alcoholic beverages. In this short intervention I will focus on tobacco.

Director-General of the World Health Organization Margaret Chan put it wisely: We know that tobacco use is not a choice. It is a powerful addiction. The choice is between tobacco or health. We know beyond doubt that tobacco use is the world’s number one preventable killer. Evidence for the physical harm and economic costs of tobacco use are also growing.

We do have evidence-based tools to combat the tobacco epidemic. The combination of strict regulatory measures, high tobacco taxes, hard hitting mass media campaigns and best practice cessation programs, do work. Everywhere, also in Norway. Norway has had the greatest reduction of smoking among the OECD-countries.  The daily smoking prevalence declined from 26 % in 2004 to 13 % in 2014. I am particularly pleased that daily smoking among young people has declined to 5 % in the age group 16–24 years old.

But, and there is a big but. The tobacco industry is an impressive opponent. And the industry is fighting back. The industry does not respect the right of legislators to decide policy on public health. They want to decide the policy on tobacco. This is not acceptable. The interest of public health must have priority over the already huge profit margins of the tobacco industry.

In March 2010, Phillip Morris sued the Norwegian government, claiming that the tobacco display ban at points of sale was in breach of the European free trade rules. The case was tried in the Oslo District court in 2012. The industry lost on all accounts.  Of course they lost. They should loose.

My main goal is to prevent tobacco use among children and young people. The introduction of plain packaging is therefore a top priority for me. In this respect there is important legal and moral support in the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and in the experience from like-minded countries. Following the example of Australia, and more recently also countries like the UK and Ireland, I believe this will be the most effective new tool we have at our disposal in order to prevent young people from starting with tobacco. I recently met with the former Australian health minister Nicola Roxon and the current English Public health minister Jane Ellison, and I am encouraged to continue the fight against tobacco and the tobacco industry in close collaboration with my international colleagues. A point that was raised by both of them, was the importance of strong support from civil society such as professional organizations.  

I have noted your resolution on plain packaging from 2012 where WMA commends this policy to governments and deplore legal moves taken by the tobacco industry to oppose such a policy. I could not have said it better myself: I commend this policy to other governments and I deplore legal actions taken by the tobacco industry against effective public health measures.

I wish you all a fruitful meeting in Oslo.

Thank you!

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