Is it possible that the tobacco industry has met its match? After years of watching public-health groups and governments struggle to rein in the multinational tobacco companies, it was good to hear that Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City and Bill Gates have joined forces to combat the smoking epidemic threatening many low- and middle-income countries.
When two highly visible billionaire philanthropists put their resources and stature behind a campaign, the results are apt to be good. And their target is a worthy one: tobacco companies and government-owned tobacco enterprises trying to addict hundreds of millions of new customers in the developing world as sales stagnate or shrivel in the industrialized nations.
Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Gates jointly announced commitments from their charitable foundations last week that will raise the money available to roughly $500 million over the next several years. Mr. Bloomberg plans to invest another $250 million over the next four years on top of $125 million that already had been committed. Mr. Gates, who was happy to join the crusade, is to allocate $125 million over five years.
The new funds will dwarf the $20 million a year currently spent on antismoking campaigns in poor and middle-income countries. The money is to be spent to promote strategies whose effectiveness has already been proved to the satisfaction of the World Health Organization. The campaign will urge governments to sharply raise tobacco taxes, prohibit smoking in public places, ban tobacco advertising, start antismoking campaigns and help people quit smoking. It will assist governmental agencies and provide funding for nongovernmental organizations to help press for tobacco controls.
The goal is to reverse the rapid rise of smoking in such countries as China, India and Russia and to head off the epidemic in Africa before it can become entrenched. One big problem is that many countries have become addicted to the revenues generated by tobacco taxes or government-owned tobacco companies. They will have to be persuaded that the long-term health damage caused by tobacco far exceeds any short-term gain from tobacco revenues.