De-Promoting Smoking

The task of breaking the tobacco habit of uncounted millions of smokers worldwide is immense. One by one, individuals have to decide either to quit, or not to try that first cigarette at all.

The World Health Organization believes the best way to encourage such decisions is a global agreement to curb smoking - and, particularly, to restrict its promotion. The WHO recently met in Geneva to advance a treaty along those lines. But it's a long, tough undertaking.

No one needs to be reminded that tobacco remains a large and powerful industry. Countries with a significant cigarette industry, like the United States, find plenty to object to when discussion turns to removing subsidies for tobacco growers or slapping a ban on advertising tobacco products.

On the advertising issue, US objections revolve around constitutional guarantees of free speech - including so-called commercial speech.

But tobacco advertising has long been regulated and effectively countered in the US. Health warnings are mandatory on all tobacco ads, TV is free of smoking ads, and antismoking groups field their own ads. Bit by bit, smoking has been stripped of its social appeal and acceptability in the US - though that work is not over.

The rest of the world badly needs to follow the US lead in this regard. The WHO's effort to have world sports organizations - such as those that govern soccer and auto racing - renounce cigarette advertising is a step in the right direction, blocking one of the industry's favorite avenues for glamorizing its products.

Another good step would be to more tightly regulate the use of such words as "light" and "mild" in cigarette ads. The treaty under consideration by the WHO would do that. A recent report by the National Cancer Institute found that cigarettes promoted with such descriptions are no safer than others.

Smoking needs to be actively de-promoted. WHO's efforts deserve strong support.

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