Times may be troubled and sources of public revenue dwindling, but many experts say that investment in human resources—health and education–is still the best way to strengthen a weak economy. I am a novice in international trade matters, but here is an idea that could improve workers’ productivity for generations to come. Solve this puzzle.
First Clue: This agricultural product is a legal, internationally traded commodity protected by the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements. However, it has been scientifically proven to be hazardous to human health. It contributes to coronary heart disease, sudden infant death syndrome and childhood asthma. It is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide.
Second Clue: Some countries are increasing production, based on the mistaken belief that selling more of this product will rescue them from debt. But estimates by the Centers for Disease Control in the US indicate that consumer use leads to extraordinary health care costs and loss in labor productivity–up to $193 billion in the period 2000-2004. Raising prices through taxation is a sure bet to reduce adolescent consumption while gaining revenues, but poor countries are only beginning to use that option.
Third Clue: Although profits reach billions of dollars, increased production doesn’t end poverty—in fact, there is evidence to the contrary. The benefits of this multi-billion dollar industry do not trickle down to farmers. Even in rich countries such as the United States, companies are creating competitive environments, which result in lower prices paid to producers. Family farms in developing countries lose in other ways because production depends on the exploitation of women and children’s unpaid work.
Fourth Clue: WHO identifies using this product as one of the four main risk factors for non-communicable diseases along with unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol. And while fewer men than ever are buying this good, more girls and young women are using it –especially in many middle-income and developing countries. If current trends continue, the World Health Organization estimates that female deaths related to this consumer product are projected to increase from 1.5 million in 2004 to 2.5 million by 2013. Health problems for women include heart disease, infertility, low birth weight babies, and cervical cancer.
Here is a final, dead give-away hint. According to a WHO report on women, gender and tobacco, more American women now die from lung cancer than from breast cancer because they used this product. The culprit? It is Marlboros, Milds, Benson and Hedges, Virginia Slims, Gold Leaf, and flavored tobacco for hookahs. Why the rise in uptake of smoking by women and girls? This trend is directly linked to the tobacco industry’s well-funded marketing campaigns targeting women. The tobacco industry uses deceptive images of beauty, modernity, prestige and liberation, while implying that “light” or “low tar” means that cigarettes are “safer.”
The women’s movement has been on the forefront of defending women’s rights to health—successfully raising public issues about breast cancer, violence against women and girls, maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS. But more feminist health activists need to join NGOs such as the Framework Convention Alliance (FCA) that works to prevent non-communicable diseases (NCDs) among women—and particularly focuses on tobacco use. NCDs are a major threat to women’s health and soon they will be the leading cause of death in low-income countries. But for many feminists, the facts are still hiding behind a cloud of smoke. Let’s learn the truth and clear the air.