Washington, DC, 2 October 2014 -- Public health efforts to fight the tobacco epidemic have advanced significantly since the first scientific evidence was published showing tobacco as cancer-causing, addictive and deadly—when used precisely as suggested by the manufacturer.

Today as before, however, the tobacco industry continues to spend millions of dollars trying to influence consumers to continue smoking, experts noted during a panel discussion on Tobacco Control in the Region of the Americas: Advances and Challenges, during the 53rd Directing Council of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

"Since 1964, we have saved 8 million lives with tobacco control interventions," said U.S. Acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak reporting on the findings from the 2014 Surgeon General's Report on the Health Consequences of Smoking: 50 Years of Progres. "But 18% of the [U.S.] population are still smokers, and a half-million die from smoking each year. That's progress, but it's still too much. We need to get angry. This epidemic was started and is being maintained by the tobacco industry."

Laws and regulations that limit sales and advertising of tobacco and mandate smoke-free environments to protect people from second-hand smoke have been critical to reducing tobacco consumption. The most effective of these interventions are laid out in the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which has been ratified by most countries in the Americas. 

Kevin Harvey, acting Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health of Jamaica, noted that his country has begun implementing a series of tobacco control measures based on the recommendations of the FCTC. The country currently smoke-free in all enclosed public places and workplaces, requires graphic warnings that cover 60% of the surface of tobacco packaging and is seeking to implement total bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. But he noted, "the FCTC is not just the responsibility of the ministry of health. It is a treaty and is the responsibility of all of government."

Minister of Health of Costa Rica Maria Elena Lopez said her country has established 100% smoke-free public enclosed spaces, a measure that industry tried to prevent. She expressed optimism that the tobacco epidemic is on the decline. "It is not the Ministry of Health that is going to do away with tobacco use," she said. "That will be done by consumers."

PAHO Assistant Director Francisco Becerra congratulated El Salvador for recently ratifying the FCTC and Nicaragua and Uruguay for being the first Parties to the Protocol on Illicit Trade in Tobacco. He noted, however, that there are still five countries in the region that have not ratified the Convention.

PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne called for solidarity with countries that are trying to implement tobacco control but are being challenged aggressively by tobacco interests.

"We have to remember that the industry is not standing by," said Etienne. "They are spending $27 per person per day in promotion. They are fighting tobacco legislation in Uruguay and Jamaica, including through litigation. It means we have to stand together to counter the efforts of the tobacco industry."

 "The tobacco industry is powerful, has lots of money and, perhaps most important, it is desperate," said Lushniak. "It is desperate to survive."