19 Jul 2016
“The Vanuatu Ministry of Health wanted to go as large as possible without taking on the issue of litigation from the tobacco industry,” said Mr. Jean Jacques Rory, Officer in Charge, Public Health. At the same time, the updated warnings had to be much larger than the existing GHWs, which cover 30 percent of the surface, he added.
“We need to have the full force of tobacco control measures to motivate current tobacco users to quit and to prevent non-users from starting.”
It’s clear that the threat of tobacco industry lawsuits has a ‘chilling’ effect that prevents many low- and mid-income governments from implementing measures in the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
6 years for Uruguay case
For example, it took six years for a challenge from industry giant Philip Morris against Uruguay to be resolved. On 8 July a tribunal found that Uruguay’s proposed measures – 80-percent warnings and limiting brands to one variant (meaning just Marlboro, not Marlboro and Marlboro Light) – were justified, and ordered Philip Morris to pay US$7 million in damages. Uruguay was able to mount a defence thanks to financial support from philanthropist Michael Bloomberg.
Vanuatu really had no choice but to update its tobacco control measures, said Director General of Health, Mr George Taleo. “We took this bold step because tobacco is killing our people and making them ill; we cannot do business as usual anymore so we not only implemented large graphic health warnings, but we also expanded smoke-free places and strengthened tobacco testing and reporting requirements.”
The changes include creating six warnings in all three national languages, Bislama, English and French. Officials hope this will inspire neighbouring countries to tailor tobacco control to the local context.
Officials in Vanuatu are already planning further measures. This includes working with the Ministry of Finance on increasing the excise tax on tobacco products to reduce their affordability, which would further encourage quitting tobacco use.
See a list compiled by the Canadian Cancer Society of the world’s largest cigarette package warnings (2015; updated version expected in 2016)