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Tobacco packages must display pictorial warnings

2 June 2009 -- WHO is urging that governments require tobacco companies to put pictures on their products to make people aware of the sickness and suffering caused by tobacco use.

Transcript of the podcast

Veronica Riemer: Grisly, shocking pictures of a bleeding brain is probably not what you would expect to see on a consumer product. But that is what WHO is urging governments to put on packs of tobacco products. In this episode, we discuss why.

Veronica Riemer: Pick up a pack of tobacco product, and typically it tells you nothing about the true character of the deadly product within: that it causes cancer, strokes, and heart and lung disease. Tobacco products kill more than 5 million people every year. It also makes sick and disfigures many more people.

Tobacco companies invest a fortune to make the packaging of tobacco products attractive to customers. Some countries have passed laws requiring tobacco companies to put health warnings on the packs, but they are mostly limited to barely visible text.

On World No Tobacco Day this year, WHO is urging that governments require tobacco companies to put pictures on the packs to make people aware of the sickness and suffering caused by tobacco use. Susy Mercado, Regional Adviser for the Tobacco Free Initiative in WHO's Regional office for the Western Pacific, tells us why.

Susy Mercado: Many people still do not really know the effects of tobacco use. Our work in the region has shown that many people and many policy-makers really do not know what the hazards are. And having pictorial warnings on packages is a good way of transmitting that message of danger and harm to the users of the product.

Veronica Riemer: Canada was the first country to pass laws in 2001 requiring pictorial warnings on tobacco packets. Twenty other countries have so far passed similar laws. Some of the pictures used in these countries are not without controversy. For example, a tobacco health warning in Singapore shows a blackened and sore-pocked gangrenous foot. Another in Australia shows a brain bleeding because of stroke. Some people object to the shocking and repellent nature of the pictures, but the evidence shows they work. Douglas Bettcher, Director of WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative, explains.

Douglas Bettcher: Country after country shows that these pictorial warnings help to communicate health risks much better. We know for example that in Brazil more than half of smokers changed their opinion on the health consequences of smoking as a result of the warnings. Also, the warnings convince smokers to quit or cut down on their levels of smoking. For example, more than a quarter of smokers in Singapore said that they consume fewer cigarettes as a result of the warnings. In Canada, more than a quarter of smokers smoke less inside their home as a result of the warnings because of the greater awareness of the devastating health harms that can also be wrought upon innocent bystanders who don't smoke themselves.

Veronica Riemer: More than 160 countries have signed up to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Article 11 of this international treaty requires the countries to put health warnings on tobacco products. Pekka Puska, President of the World Heart Federation and head of Finland's National Public Health Institute, says that pictorial warnings are an important element of any sound tobacco control strategy.

Pekka Puska: We have to undertake comprehensive work. We need health education. We need legislation. We need smoking cessation activities. Actually, we need the different components that are outlined in the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. But the warnings in the packages, of course, are a basic element because the warnings are for smokers when they get the package. But, as I said, this is no magic bullet, but this is just one of the many steps we are taking.

Veronica Riemer: If you would like to learn more about World No Tobacco day or the WHO Tobacco Free Initiative, there are links to related information on the transcript page of this podcast episode. Look for the link to the podcast on the home page of our web site, at

That's all for this episode of the WHO podcast. Thanks for listening. If you have any comments on our podcast or have any suggestions for future health topics do drop us a line. Our email address is

For the World Health Organization, this is Veronica Riemer in Geneva.

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