September 2, 2010 - The effort to combat disease in the developing world is becoming less about killer viruses and more about killer products - chiefly tobacco. Developing countries are undergoing a rapid epidemiological transition—from infectious diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia to chronic ones such as heart disease—that threatens to overwhelm their strapped health systems and cripple their fragile economies.
Changes in traditional diets following the arrival of western-style fast food have also contributed to rising rates of "non-communicable" diseases, diabetes and heart disease. Dr Mary Assunta, senior policy adviser to the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) - said these lifestyle-related diseases were now starting to rival the impact of infectious disease in developing nations.
Dr Assunta told AAP: "The trend that you see now in many developing countries is that non-communicable diseases - many of which are tobacco related - are actually catching up with infectious disease and this places a tremendous burden,"
"Out of the 1.2 billion smokers in the world, 80 per cent of those are actually from developing countries or poor and low resourced countries ... It is a huge challenge."
While less than 20 per cent of Australians are smokers, in Indonesia the prevalence of smoking among adults is just over 45 per cent.
Dr Assunta said developing nations, many of which have yet to impose cigarette advertising bans, were "aggressively" targeted by the tobacco industry.
Governments in developing nations were also "burdened with addressing immediate problems" and so could put off action on the longer-term health implications of smoking.
Dr Assunta was chair of a panel at the United Nations DPI/NGO (Department of Public Information/Non-Governmental Organisation) conference, a three day summit in Melbourne which is focussed on the efforts of the NGO (non-government organizations) community in tackling poverty and disease.
The panel was told how the Philippines government now faced a legal challenge from the tobacco industry, as it sought to introduce graphic warning labels like those seen on tobacco products in Australia. (Philippines - injunction regarding picture health warnings on cigarette packs nationwide..)
It also heard how some governments in developing nations relied on funding from tobacco companies - given as "corporate social responsibility" donations - to fund public services including schools. (for example: Tanzania - accepts donations from Alliance One, a leaf tobacco merchant...)
Dr Assunta said there was one "plus" to tackling tobacco as opposed to infectious disease - it did not hinge on scientists looking for an elusive vaccine.
"The plus point for addressing tobacco ... is you need to put in place comprehensive legislation to reduce tobacco use," she said. "And the single most important way is to put up tobacco tax, which must be reflected in expensive and not affordable cigarettes."
Reference: Lifestyle diseases ‘now rival infection’, Smoking-quit.info, 9/2/2010.