Tabaré Vázquez: Uruguay’s fight against non-communicable diseases and tobacco

Uruguay’s anti-tobacco policy has allowed the country to transform its treatment of non-communicable diseases

The abusive use of tobacco creates an addiction due to the physiological and psychological dependence generated by nicotine. We are facing one of the most important challenges met by our society—a challenge that kills men and women by the minute, destroys families, and causes health and economic problems around the globe.

The statistics speak for themselves when they show us that developing countries are the most affected by smoking. For this reason, more than ever, it is necessary for all the nations of the world to come together in the implementation of active, responsible public policies, which are socially committed to our people, who are the ones suffering from this disease. We cannot give up or quit the fight.

In Uruguay, we have taken the fight against cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, and lung cancer very seriously. Because of our anti-tobacco policy, we have managed to place ourselves as the first country in the Americas that is 100% smoke-free in closed environments. We have recently approved immediate application decrees to bring in plain packaging for tobacco products and labelling for packaged foods.

We have been working on comprehensive legal regulation since 2006 by means of laws and decrees that also cover issues such as the prevention and control of alcohol, cannabis, and other drugs. We have armed our country against non-communicable diseases.

However, the legal framework is not enough. We must adopt policies and implement measures that also require participation and consensus. This is why dialogue has been established with the participation of the political system, the scientific academy, health specialists, business and union sectors, among others.

The World Health Organization’s Time to Deliver: report of the WHO Independent High Level Commission on Noncommunicable Diseases urges states to provide the greatest political support possible for the fight against these diseases. It goes even deeper by extending such responsibility not only to the ministries of health, but also to the highest possible level: the heads of state and government. This is what we have done in Uruguay, where apart from the permanent and outstanding work of the Ministry of Public Health, I personally integrate and participate in working groups that meet monthly to define and articulate policies, follow up on the actions in progress, make the corresponding adjustments, and plan future actions.

Yet that is still not enough. The best intentions, the best legislation, and the best policies mean nothing if they do not have citizen support, if people do not embrace them, and they are not regarded as useful for their quality of life. 

For that to happen there are several factors that can be summarised in a few words: information, education, communication, and health promotion. Health is a universal right, but it is also everyone’s responsibility. 

Tabaré Vázquez assumed the presidency of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay in March 2015, having previously served as president from 2005 to 2010. From 1996 until he assumed the presidency, Vázquez served as president of the Frente Amplio coalition. Dr Vázquez was mayor of Montevideo from 1989 to 1994. A physician who specialises in oncology and radiology, he continued to practise medicine as president, dedicating one morning a week to a Montevideo clinic. 

Twitter: @TabareVazquez

First published in Health: A Political Choice, an official Global Governance Project publication, edited by John Kirton and Ilona Kickbusch. Read your copy here