World No Tobacco Day is observed around the world every year on May 31. It is meant to encourage a 24-hour period of abstinence from all forms of tobacco consumption across the globe.
The day is further intended to draw global attention to the widespread prevalence of tobacco use and to negative health effects, which currently lead to 5.4 million deaths worldwide annually.
The member states of the World Health Organization (WHO) created World No Tobacco Day (WNTD) in 1987. In the past twenty years, the day has been met with both enthusiasm and resistance across the globe from governments, public health organizations, smokers, growers, and the tobacco industry.
Groups around the world—from local clubs to city councils to national governments—are encouraged by the WHO to organize events each year to help communities celebrate World No Tobacco Day in their own way at the local level.
Past events have included letter writing campaigns to government officials and local newspapers, marches, public debates, local and national publicity campaigns, anti-tobacco activist meetings, educational programming, and public art
For some, WNTD is nothing more than a “futile attempt to curb smoking” which has little to no visible effect in places like the former USSR, India, and China.
For others, WNTD is seen as a challenge to individual freedom of choice or even a culturally acceptable form of discrimination.
From ignoring WNTD, to participating in protests or acts of defiance, to bookending the day with extra rounds of pro-tobacco advertisements and events, smokers, tobacco growers, and the tobacco industry have found ways to make their opinions of the day heard.
There has been no sustained or wide-spread effort to organize counter-WNTD events on the part of smokers. There is, however, an active community of smokers’ rights advocates who see the WNTD as unfairly singling them out and challenging their rights.
Some small groups have created local pro-smoking events. For example, the Oregon Commentator, an independent conservative journal of opinion published at the [University of Oregon], hosted a “Great American Smoke-in” on campus as a counter to the more widespread Great American Smokeout: “In response to the ever-increasing vilification of smokers on campus, the Oregon Commentator presents the Great American Smoke-in as an opportunity for students to join together and enjoy the pleasures of fine tobacco products.
Similarly, “Americans for Freedom of Choice” a group in Honolulu, Hawaii organized “World Defiance Day” in response to WNTD and Hawaii’s statewide ban on smoking in restaurants.
Historically, the tobacco industry has supported initiatives that provide resources to help smokers quit smoking. For example, Phillip Morris USA operates a “Quit Assist” website that acts as a guide for those who choose to quit smoking.
Acknowledging the fact that quitting is possible puts the power back into the hands of the individual and therefore alleviates responsibility from the tobacco companies.
Additionally, advocating for cessation of smoking can allow companies to still advocate for alternative forms of tobacco, while cessation of tobacco would eliminate business completely.
World No Tobacco Days have not induced a positive vocal response from the tobacco industry. Unlike the tobacco industry, some big pharmaceutical companies do publicly support WNTD. For example, Pfizer was a large sponsor for many WNTD events in the United Arab Emirates in 2008.
At the time, Pfizer was preparing to release its drug Champix (Varenicline) into the Middle Eastern market. The drug was “designed to activate the nicotinic receptor to reduce both the severity of the smoker’s craving and the withdrawal symptoms from nicotine.”
Many tobacco growers feel that anti-tobacco efforts by organizations such as the WHO jeopardize their rights. For example, the International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA) argues that poor farmers in Africa may suffer the consequences if WHO anti-tobacco movements succeed.
They also argue that these efforts may gang up on manufacturers of tobacco and be an attack on the industry, therefore hurting the growers.