Claiming the Right To Health

“My heart can’t be cured is because I’m too poor to pay my son’s school tuition—and that is breaking my heart” (Korean village woman)

Times may be troubled, and sources of public revenue may be dwindling, but many experts say that investment in education and health resources 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. However, estimates by the Centers for Disease Control in the United States indicate that consumer use leads to extraordinary healthcare costs and loss in labor productivity—up to $193 billion in from 2000 to 2004. Raising prices through taxation is a sure bet to reduce adolescent consumption while gaining revenue, 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 multibillion-dollar industry do not trickle down to farmers. Even in rich countries, such as the United States, companies are creating competitive environments result in lower income for producers. Family farms in developing countries lose as well, because production depends on the exploitation of women and children as unpaid laborers.

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. While fewer men are buying this good than ever, 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.

A final, 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. The rise in smoking by women and girls 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 and have successfully raised public issues about breast cancer, violence against women and girls, maternal mortality, and HIV/AIDS. However, more feminist health activists need to join NGOs that work to prevent non-communicable diseases (NCDs) among women, such as the Framework Convention Alliance (FCA), and NGOs that particularly focuses on tobacco use. NCDs are a major threat to women’s health, and they will soon be the leading cause of death in low-income countries. For many feminists, the facts are still hiding behind a cloud of smoke. Let’s learn the truth and clear the air.

End of Section