Bloomberg's welcome initiative on smoking

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 August, 2006, 12:00am

As new problems emerge, old ones often get forgotten without being solved. It is thus refreshing to see New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg donating US$125 million of his own money to campaign against a health problem that is considered very much passe - smoking.

It is interesting to note that Mr Bloomberg's announcement came as Aids is very much in the limelight. A week-long conference being held in Vancouver has - once again - turned the spotlight on what is still regarded as one of the world's most threatening epidemics. HIV, responsible for causing Aids, was discovered a little over two decades ago, and funding for research to find a cure is ballooning. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has contributed US$1.9 billion to the fight.

Sars and bird flu are two other newly discovered health issues that are also attracting increasing attention. Amid the frenzy to unravel their mysteries, however, it is all too easy to forget that there are other less captivating, but no less threatening, health problems that remain unsolved. Smoking is one of them. According to the World Health Organisation, tobacco consumption is the single leading preventable cause of death. Every year, it results in the premature deaths of nearly 5 million people. And if current smoking patterns continue, the number of deaths will double to 10 million a year by 2020.

Regrettably, smoking remains widely popular, even though its harmful effects, including second-hand smoke, are already well documented. Nor is its prevention a tardy business. One only needs to summon up the determination to quit. But perhaps so much is known about smoking that it has lost the attention it deserves or the funding required to combat it. Money is needed not so much to find a cure, but to protect children and young people from tobacco, to prevent them from taking up smoking, to support smokers to quit and to protect non-smokers from second-hand tobacco smoke. These preventive measures require dedicated efforts to lobby governments and fight established interests, to pass laws and introduce rules to ban or discourage smoking. Hong Kong's uphill battle to ban smoking in public places is a case in point.

By donating a large sum of money to tackle a problem such as smoking, which has gone off the radar screen of many philanthropists, Mr Bloomberg is doing the world a great service. In 2003, the WHO spearheaded the passage of an international treaty on tobacco control, but its implementation has been slow.

The campaign against smoking is not the only health issue that would benefit from similar donations. For example, malaria remains an endemic problem, particularly in Africa where it kills more than 1 million people a year. The world would be a healthier place if more philanthropists followed Mr Bloomberg's example.