Anti-tobacco conference

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Canadian Press Monday, September 16, 2002

Montreal — Not long ago, the idea of holding an international anti-tobacco conference in Montreal would have been a joke.

But this week more than 400 experts and researchers from French-speaking countries around the globe are in the city to share information and strategies, and unite their political efforts to rein in the tobacco industry.

"The anti-tobacco movement is no longer dealing with a medical debate; now it is a political struggle," said Louis Gauvin, president of the conference.

Sponsored by Health Canada, Quebec's Department of Health and Social Services, Pharmacia (producer of the Nicoderm patch) and the Quebec Public Health Association, the conference opened Sunday night and continues until Wednesday.

Quebec has long been branded the nation's chimney, but recent statistics show the province now has the third-lowest smoking rate in Canada. In 2001, 24 per cent of Quebecers smoked, down from 44 per cent two decades before.

The goal of the conference, Mr. Gauvin said, is to take stock of the anti-smoking battle in francophone societies in Europe, Africa, North America and around the world, and to arm its soldiers with new strategies to tackle the industry.

Monday, the conference will look at industry practices, including a presentation from Belgian researcher Luk Joosens, an expert with the World Health Organization who charges that the tobacco industry considers contraband cigarette sales as just another marketing strategy.

Using U.S. Department of Agriculture documents as reference, Mr. Joosens says 250 billion cigarettes exported each year by tobacco multinationals simply disappear into the hands of contraband retailers.

"The principle is simple: about a trillion cigarettes are exported by manufacturers every year but, according to numbers from the American government, only 750 billion are imported," Mr. Joosens said. "The 250 billion disappeared cigarettes are either re-routed by so-called import-export companies in third-party countries, or introduced illegally in their country of origin by crime rings."

Tuesday's sessions are to include an economist enumerating the cost-savings to governments that invest in the struggle against tobacco, and a look at a Florida program to "denormalize" or "deglamourize" the tobacco industry in the public eye.

Chuck Wolfe, who headed a successful anti-tobacco program called Truth for the state of Florida, will talk about the need to involve youth in the design of government programs to discourage smoking. Instead of preaching about not smoking, the youth-designed ads tended to confront the tobacco industry directly.

"We had one ad where the young people taped phone calls to officials of a tobacco company called Lucky Strike," Mr. Wolfe said Sunday.

"They asked them, 'What's lucky about Lucky Strike? Is it that you might live?' They taped the conversations and turned them into commercials and the kids thought it was hilarious."

Other speakers will be lauding federal and provincial efforts to combat smoking in Canada, from raising taxes on cigarettes to phasing out tobacco companies' sponsorship of cultural and sporting events. Quebec is one of the few governments in the world that reimburses the cost of nicotine patches and other smoking-cessation aids.

Mr. Gauvin said the need for a French-language conference had nothing to do with different smoking rates among francophones or different cultural approaches to quitting.

"We've been noticing the need for a francophone conference on tobacco over the past 10 years in attending many diverse anti-smoking conferences around the world," he said.

Mr. Gauvin said francophone researchers and experts simply tend to be more vocal about their opinions and forthcoming with their data when using their first language.

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