Helsinki to Singapore – personal observations on the World Conference

11 Apr 2012

Dr Margaret Chan – who is the WHO Director-General, was more than the keynote speaker. She became the head cheerleader, advocating for tough laws and denouncing the tobacco industry. And she didn’t fly in, give a speech, and jump in a limo to head back to Geneva. Dr Chan stayed all week, actively participating in sessions. Her presence and energy reinforced what the tobacco control community has been saying for years – tobacco is a global health priority.

Holistic approach – more than ever, tobacco was seen through a variety of lenses. A major preconference on human rights highlighted new avenues to address the epidemic. Throughout the week, workshops focused on trade, labour, education, development and the environment. The widened approach is evident in the adopted declarations.

Industry as pariah – at my first World Conference in Helsinki industry reps were in the sessions, boldly identifying themselves, if asked. They were considered stakeholders, albeit suspicious ones. If they were present at the Suntek convention centre, they were laying low, although some were spotted in nearby hotels. The rhetoric throughout the week was that the tobacco industry has no place at the table, and in fact, if we really want to fight tobacco we need to find ways to make life tough for the industry.

Endgame – in spite of the increasing threat of tobacco to health, we shared a recognition that we were near a global tipping point, and should be looking at ways to deliver knock-out blows to the tobacco epidemic. The feeling was best illustrated by Greg Connolly of Harvard University, who invited the plenary to the 21st and final WCTOH in Boston in 2030, where we would celebrate victory.

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