Speech by Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, at the WNTD award giving ceremony to H.E. Dr Namburakara Helambage Rajitha Harischandra Senaratne, Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine, Sri Lanka

7 December 2015

Your Excellency, President Maithripala Sirisena,

Honorable Minister of Health, Dr Rajitha Senaratne,

Honorable Ministers and Parliamentarians

Dr Palitha Abeykoon, Chair of National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol,

Ladies and Gentlemen;

Non-communicable diseases are on the rise in the South-East Asia Region. Evidence shows that there are more deaths from non-communicable diseases than communicable diseases. Tobacco is one of the major risk factors of non-communicable diseases. To address this every year, WHO recognizes individuals or organizations for their accomplishments in the area of tobacco control, such as research, capacity building, promotion of policy or legislation and advocacy to enhance tobacco control measures.

It is, therefore, my great pleasure and a privilege to hand over this prestigious World No Tobacco Day Award to Hon’ble Dr Senaratne, Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine. This award is a clear recognition of Sri Lanka’s achievements in tobacco control and the contribution of Sri Lanka towards the advancements of the objectives of the Global Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

The theme of this year's World No Tobacco Day is "Stop Illicit Trade." Sri Lanka, is a Party to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. In addition, the country has shown unwavering commitment to also eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products and is actively working towards the accession to the WHO FCTC Protocol to eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products. Your Excellency, President Sririsena, under your leadership I have no doubt that Sri Lanka will be the first country in the Region to become Party to this Protocol as well.


I wish to highlight a few significant achievements in Sri Lanka in the field of tobacco control. In 2012, Ministry of Health issued a landmark public health regulation for tobacco control. It became the first country in our Region to legislate a requirement of tobacco products to have pictorial health warnings covering 80% of the pack. The tobacco industry, as expected, reacted. The court approved legislation to cover 50% to 60% of the cigarette packs. However, Dr. Senaratne, on becoming Health Minister, took immediate steps to amend the tobacco control act, to make it mandatory for all tobacco products on sale to display rotating pictorial health warnings, covering 80% of the largest surface area of the pack. The new law that came into effect in June this year also required pictures to be different on different sides. No two brands from the same manufacturer could display the same warnings. This resulted in Sri Lanka being a country with one of the largest graphic health warnings in the world. This will have enormous impact as scientific evidence attests¬- the larger the warning size, the larger the impact.

The significance of this measure will go far beyond the shores of Sri Lanka. This will be an example for other countries, especially developing countries. It also goes to show how the political skill, the commitment and the undiluted zeal of Hon’ble Minister, Dr Senaratne, helped in obtaining the unanimous support of all political parties for the amendments he ushered in.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is very clear that we need to fight the global tobacco epidemic if we are to make progress on prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases. Sri Lanka, over the past decades, has established a strong public health system and has achieved many notable successes in public health. Malaria elimination and polio eradication are a few outstanding examples. I see the same commitment to deal with tobacco which, I have no doubt, will have far reaching impact on the emerging burden of noncommunicable diseases.

We know that tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable deaths. Worldwide, tobacco use kills nearly six million people annually with over 600 000 deaths due to exposure to second-hand smoke. In the WHO South-East Asia Region, the toll of death is estimated to be over 1.3 million. Our Region has about 20% of global smokers and 82% global users of smokeless tobacco. The Region is one of the largest producers and users of tobacco products in the world. Many types of smoking and smokeless tobacco products are used in the Region, which poses difficulties to harmonize taxation and regulations for controlling tobacco use. I am pleased that Hon’ble Dr Senaratne, since assuming office, has taken many progressive steps towards a comprehensive strategy for tobacco control. Under the leadership of His Excellency, the President Maithripala Sirisena, and with the untiring efforts of Dr Senaratne, Sri Lanka has successfully addressed several important aspects of tobacco control. I understand that the government is currently working towards fine tuning to the current legislation to bring in amendments aimed to align all articles covered by the WHO FCTC with the National Tobacco and Alcohol Authority Act.

World Health Organization (WHO) would like to congratulate Sri Lanka for the achievement of these milestones in public health and congratulate the tireless efforts of Hon’ble Dr Senaratne, for his many achievements, I am honoured to present him this award.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

While we must celebrate our success, we must also be cognizant of the challenges that lie ahead. Despite the aggressive approach towards control of tobacco use, when reviewing the Sri Lanka data for 2008 and 2015, there is no significant change in the proportion of people who smoke and, also, the proportion of those who use smokeless tobacco. This means that Sri Lanka can miss the 30 per cent reduction target for tobacco use by 2025. It also indicates that the smokeless tobacco issue needs to be addressed as aggressively as smoking.

We would like to reiterate our commitment in providing our full support to enhance tobacco control. At the Sixty-eighth Session of the Regional Committee, Member States have unanimously adopted the Dili Declaration to accelerate implementation of the WHO FCTC. I am hopeful that with the political commitment, multisectoral engagement and community involvement, Sri Lanka, will achieve the voluntary target of 30 per cent reduction in tobacco use by the year 2030. The leadership of the Honorable President, who, I am sure, has a special place for health in his heart being an erstwhile Health Minister, will go a long way in making this happen. WHO stands ready to provide whatever assistance required as we walk together towards the shared goal of a world free of tobacco.

Thank You.