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Call for pictorial warnings on tobacco

The WHO is urging governments to require that all tobacco packages include pictorial warnings showing the risks of tobacco use

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is urging governments to require that all tobacco packages include pictorial warnings showing the risks of tobacco use.

The call supports this year's World No Tobacco Day campaign, which was held on May 31, focusing on decreasing tobacco use by increasing public awareness of its dangers.

In its report, Showing the truth, saving lives: the case for pictorial health warnings, the WHO states that effective health warnings, especially those that include pictures, have been proven to motivate users to quit and to reduce the appeal of tobacco for those who are not yet addicted. Studies carried out after the implementation of pictorial package warnings (using pictures and text) in Brazil, Canada, Singapore and Thailand reveal consistent findings on the positive impact of the warnings.

"Health warnings on tobacco packages are a simple, cheap and effective strategy that can vastly reduce tobacco use and save lives," said WHO assistant director-general, Dr Ala Alwan. "But they only work if they communicate the risk. Warnings that include images of the harm that tobacco causes are particularly effective at communicating risk and motivating behavioural changes, such as quitting or reducing tobacco consumption."

At present, 23 jurisdictions, with a combined population of nearly 700 million people, require large graphic health warnings on packaging. Djibouti, Latvia, Mauritius and Switzerland have legislation in place to implement pictorial warnings later in 2009 and in 2010.

More than 160 countries have ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which commits its parties to require that tobacco products "carry health warnings describing the harmful effects of tobacco use". The Article 11 best-practice guidelines to the treaty stipulate that warnings should be large and clear, appear on both sides of tobacco packages and describe specific illnesses caused by tobacco.

Yet only 10 per cent of people worldwide live in countries that require warnings with pictures on tobacco packages.

In 2008, WHO unveiled MPOWER – a technical assistance package of six tobacco control measures, designed so that even low-income countries can go far towards countering the epidemic and meeting their commitments under the Framework.

3rd June 2009

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