Anti-smoking blockbuster

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(Host) Commentator Nils Daulaire reflects on the movies and smoking, both here and abroad.

(Daulaire) Well, for once the movie industry told the truth about cigarettes.

Last week’s Academy Awards didn’t celebrate a single movie that glamorized tobacco use – unless you count the pipe-smoking hobbits in “The Return of the King.” But there was nothing fantastic, romantic or cool about the smoking – and the coughing and dying – shown in dramas such as “Monster,” “Mystic River” and “21 Grams.”

For once, the season’s big dramas – with their hard-luck, hurting characters – accurately reflected cigarette addiction in America. The good news is that adult smokers in the U.S. are down by half over the last forty years; but the bad news is that the majority of adults who still smoke live at the low end of America’s social ladder. In other words, the Americans who smoke the most are the ones least able to afford the health care needed to deal with their dangerous addiction and its consequences.

In fact, the only Americans more likely to smoke than the disadvantaged poor aren’t real people at all: they’re the made-up characters of Hollywood movies. Why? Because of “product placement.”

Tobacco companies can’t reach kids by buying TV ad time, but they can pay to make sure the star in the next big action flick smokes their brand. Kids see this “endorsement” on the big screen and in countless replays. Remember Leonardo DiCaprio’s romantic cigarette on the deck of the Titanic? It added nothing to the story line, but millions to tobacco companies’ bottom line.

Still, cigarette manufacturers know that America is a shrinking market. That’s why Big Tobacco is pushing another kind of product placement: Transplanting cigarette addiction to the Third World.

Two decades of sweetheart deals with cash-poor foreign governments, aggressive pricing and overwhelming marketing campaigns have resulted in huge increases in cigarette smoking – and smoking-related disease – in some of the world’s poorest countries.

In the mid 1990s, three million people worldwide died each year as a result of tobacco, mostly in better-off countries. But by 2015, experts project 10 million deaths a year. And nearly three quarters of those will be in developing nations – unless something is done now.

The World Health Organization has recently negotiated an international tobacco control treaty that would fight this greed-driven pandemic by helping governments limit tobacco ads, raise cigarette taxes and fight smuggling. These methods work, and the treaty was endorsed last year by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson. But the Bush Administration has never sent it on to Congress for approval.

It would seem the intent is to withhold the treaty until the June 29 deadline for ratification has passed.

If we believe that the world’s poorest people deserve protection from deadly, addictive products – as our own children do – it just makes sense to support this breakthrough in global health diplomacy. Lots of people are letting the White House and Congress know that’s how they feel.

Picture this: A down-to-the-wire, last-minute campaign to save millions of lives. Now that’s like something right out of the movies.

This is Nils Daulaire.

Doctor Nils Daulaire is President of the Global Health Council, headquartered in White River Junction. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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