The COVID-19 pandemic posed significant challenges for the tobacco control community, mainly because it was at the top of the political and legislative agendas of the countries in the region. However, this context also served to highlight the relevance of public health policies in the population and, among other things, showed how the consequences of these policies transcend the health sector. The purpose of this meeting will be to discuss the achievements in tobacco control during the pandemic and to reflect on challenges still pending in the region.
Between early 2020 and 2022, we can identify examples in the region where progress with the adoption of tobacco control measures or discussions of proposals in legislative branches has been made. For instance, at the end of 2020, South America became the first sub-region to be 100% smoke-free, following legal measures adopted in Bolivia and Paraguay. By the end of 2021, Mexico adopted the same measure which resulted in 63% of the total population of the 35 Member States of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to be covered by this public health policy. Mexico also adopted a total ban on all forms of advertising, promotion, and sponsorship of tobacco products, increasing the number of countries that apply this policy in the region to nine.
Other countries, such as Colombia (national coordination mechanism), Peru (periodic update of excise taxes), and Saint Lucia (100% smoke-free environments), were able to make significant progress in implementing the MPOWER package and other measures established in the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC). Countries like Jamaica, with its comprehensive tobacco control act bill, and Costa Rica, with its bill on plain packaging, also moved forward with the parliamentary discussions of these tobacco control initiatives. Additionally, it is also important to highlight Brazil’s leadership and the stability of their obtained achievements. Brazil is the only PAHO Member State that implements the entire MPOWER package at the highest level, since 2018, demonstrating that sustainability of tobacco control policies over the years is possible even in times of crisis. Some questions that will be addressed during the meeting are: how was it possible to adopt/drive these tobacco control measures in such a particular context as the COVID-19 pandemic? What were the main challenges? What lessons were learned?
Unfortunately, the tobacco industry and its allies also managed to adapt to this context, taking advantage of the vulnerabilities and crisis scenarios faced by public health matters, to amplify their interference strategies and tactics. For this reason, this meeting also aims to warn about the main tactics and arguments used by the industry, which are cross-cutting to all tobacco control measures. Some of these tactics used during the COVID-19 pandemic included: approaching governments by offering donations of masks, respirators, funds to fight the virus, among other resources; trying to obtain special treatment or avoid existing regulations, such as attempting to continue production during quarantine despite a mandatory production shutdown; and seeking to destabilize governmental discussions on tobacco control, including advocating for flexible regulation of novel and emerging nicotine and tobacco products.
While progress has been significant and should be highlighted, we must not lose sight of the fact that 17 years have passed since the WHO FCTC came into force and 14 years since the launch of the MPOWER package. In addition, 2022 is the last year of the Strategy and Action Plan to Strengthen Tobacco Control in the Region of the Americas 2018-2022, and there is still room for improvement as new challenges lie ahead.
In particular, one of the least implemented measures in the region has been the adoption of plain packaging of tobacco products by only two Member States. During this meeting, emphasis will be placed on this measure, presenting the cases of countries in the region that have already implemented it or are on their way to doing so. Plain packaging is a significant measure to reduce the demand for tobacco products, related to articles 11 and 13 of the WHO FCTC as it reduces the attractiveness of tobacco products, restricts use of the pack as a form of advertising and promotion, limits misleading packaging and increases the effectiveness of health warnings.
In this context, the main objective of this meeting will be to provide a space for interaction so that PAHO Member States, the Pan American Sanitary Bureau, and representatives of civil society and academia can share achievements and challenges faced in tobacco control and jointly think about strategies for a post-pandemic context. This event is organized by the Pan American Health Organization in collaboration with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, and thanks to the financial assistance of the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use.