By Dr. Arvind Mathur, WHO Representative to Timor-Leste
World Health Organization (WHO) appreciated Timor-Leste’s efforts toward a tobacco-free nation is commendable.
Early this month, my colleagues from the World Health Organization’s Timor-Leste country office interacted with a 48-year-old man from Dili, Gaspar da Silva, who has been off smoking since December 2022. The freelance artist has been receiving help from the Formosa Cessation Centre, where he has had six follow-up visits so far. Growing health concerns and the increasing cost of cigarettes were the primary reasons why Mr. da Silva considered quitting. Listening to his story has been rewarding in many ways because it is a testimony to the impact of the Ministry of Health’s work along with the WHO.
As we come together to observe World No Tobacco Day, I, as a representative of WHO Timor-Leste, am filled with a sense of pride and hope. Timor-Leste is embarking on a transformative journey towards a healthier nation, and its efforts towards a tobacco-free nation are commendable. This year’s theme, “We need food, not tobacco,” resonates deeply with the nation’s vision of a prosperous and thriving society, free from the clutches of tobacco addiction.
It is worth noting that the Formosa Cessation Centre, where Mr. da Silva and hundreds of other Timorese people have received help for deaddiction, was the first of four such centers that opened in October 2021. These centers serve as beacons of hope, offering counseling, guidance, and medical assistance to individuals seeking to overcome their dependence on tobacco. To this end, we are committed to supporting the Ministry of Health in establishing tobacco cessation centers across the country.
One of our key strategies to reduce tobacco use is through the implementation of WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), specifically by making tobacco products less affordable through increased taxation. The Government of Timor-Leste has shown unwavering commitment and has taken the bold decision to introduce and progressively raise health taxes on tobacco. This display of political will is a testament to our collective determination to safeguard the health of our people.
Since January 2022, the excise tax on tobacco in Timor-Leste has witnessed a substantial increase, soaring from $19/kg to $50/kg. Building on this success, Timor-Leste further increased the tax to $100/kg in January 2023. This surge in prices is believed to have had a significant impact on cigarette consumption, prompting individuals to reconsider their harmful habits.
Unsurprisingly, the surge in taxes fuelled concerns about illicit tobacco trade practices. But the Ministry of Health with technical assistance from the WHO has already been working on acceding the FCTC protocol to eliminate the illicit trade of tobacco products.
These efforts will go a long way in improving the public health parameters and reducing the burden of non-communicable diseases in the country that are currently responsible for nearly 45% of deaths. The NCDs include cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases, among others. To combat NCDs, Timor-Leste has also implemented a crucial tool called the Package of Essential Noncommunicable Diseases (PEN), which allows to identify and monitor risk factors, such as tobacco use, hypertension, alcohol consumption, and lifestyle habits. By implementing this package, the country aims to ensure early detection of NCDs, enabling timely intervention and a better chance at successful treatment and prevention.
In the pursuit of a healthier nation, the Ministry of Health has taken a holistic approach by not only combating tobacco use but also promoting a culture of wellness. As part of this effort, WHO has supported the Ministry of Health to establish open-air gymnasiums in various communities, encouraging citizens to embrace an active lifestyle. By providing accessible spaces for exercise, we aim to inspire individuals to prioritize their well-being and forge a healthier, more vibrant Timor-Leste.
In recognition of the outstanding achievements, the Minister of Health, dr. Odete Maria Freitas Belo has been bestowed with the prestigious WHO Director General’s World No Tobacco Day award, last week. My heartiest congratulations to Her Excellency and the Ministry of Health for this achievement. Today, on World No Tobacco Day, let us reflect on the progress we have made and the path that lies ahead. Let’s envision a future where tobacco’s grip on our society is weakened, and every Timorese, young and old, understand the importance of healthy habits and healthy living.