Fri, 28 Jul 2023 Feature Article

WHO award shines spotlight on Thailand's statistical agency and tobacco control

WHO award shines spotlight on Thailand's statistical agency and tobacco control

Tobacco industry has used deception and lies to market its deadly tobacco products and lure children and young people to killer addiction over the decades. But it was only data, science and evidence that provided rock solid ground to health justice and corporate accountability advocates worldwide to expose the nefarious designs of tobacco industry, and advance historic progress in form of global tobacco treaty, as well as range of domestic laws and its enforcement.

It is indisputable that tobacco kills, and there is no safe limit of tobacco use. Over 8 million die of tobacco use every year worldwide – each of the deadly disease or untimely death due to tobacco use could have been prevented. “Tobacco is entirely a preventable epidemic,” said Dr Tara Singh Bam, Asia Pacific Director of International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union).

The United Nations (UN) health agency, the World Health Organization (WHO) confers its World No Tobacco Day awards every year to recognize stellar contribution of those advancing lifesaving tobacco control policies worldwide.

Prestigious WHO award 2023 to Thailand National Statistical Office

Among the 2023 WHO Director General’s World No Tobacco Day Awardees is Thailand National Statistical Office (TNSO). TNSO’s data has provided a strong evidence-base to implement tobacco control effectively in Thailand and help save lives.

Dr Piyanuch Wuttisorn, Director-General, National Statistical Office of Thailand, said in an exclusive interview with CNS (Citizen News Service): “A lot of policy making bodies such as tobacco control agencies, use tobacco control data and information from us (TNSO). For example, information on awareness about tobacco health hazards is important. It is only because of data from our surveys that we know which province in Thailand has higher problem of tobacco use. This data is vital so that we can tailor the measures and activities targetted in these specific areas. This helps us and other relevant agencies to impact change and reduce tobacco use."

Most of tobacco use begins among children and young people, as tobacco industry continues to ‘hooks them young.’ Dr Piyanuch said that “We do not want children and young people to begin tobacco use. But if survey shows young people are getting involved in tobacco use, we can have stricter policy implementation to control that early on. That is why TNSO’s survey is so important."

The TNSO’s survey has generated data on range of other important information that has helped shape more effective policies in Thailand. For example, expenditure on particular items in different provinces of Thailand is known because of such a survey. Increasing taxation on all forms of tobacco products is among the strong evidence-based policies of Thailand to improve tobacco control. TNSO’s data also shows tobacco user type, or quantity of tobacco products consumed (and this includes electronic cigarettes or other forms of electronic nicotine delivery systems or vaping products). Thailand had banned electronic cigarettes in 2014 setting an important precedent to follow for several other nations worldwide.

“Our surveys have shown if tobacco control policies were effective or not – this monitoring and evaluation is vital so that relevant national policy making bodies can use our data and improve enforcement and public health outcomes,” said Dr Piyanuch.

There is an important legal principle that says “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” because violators of any law cannot defend their actions by saying ‘they did not know that it was illegal.’ But there is no doubt that awareness about laws should reach far and wide.

It is important that prohibition on sale of tobacco to anyone below the age of 20 years in Thailand, should be widely publicized and enforced strictly. “If our data shows health information is not reaching a population, then we can tailor our advocacy activities for better adherence to health laws and policies” said Dr Piyanuch.

“We need to encourage that all people are aware about the prohibition of any form of tobacco advertising, promotion or sponsorship, because such marketing activities, either online or offline, are banned. TNSO’s monitoring and evaluation of the compliance of tobacco control law 2017 in Thailand is playing an important role,” said Dr Piyanuch.

National Statistical Office of Thailand has done surveys and generated data on range of issues. National Health Behaviour Survey is one of them. TNSO looked at tobacco control, alcohol intake, other diseases and activities that impact health adversely, and range of other indices.

Dr Piyanuch who leads TNSO, had earlier served as Inspector-General, Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, Thailand; Director, Social Data-based and Indicator Development Office, Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council; Senior Advisor in Plan and Policy for Director of the International Cooperation office, Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council; and Secretary-General, Office of the National Digital Economy and Society Commission of Thailand.

Despite key role of data, challenges remain
“Stakeholders who are involved on various health issues have high demand and high requirement for credible and reliable data. Disaggregated data is even more in demand. As of now, Thailand has disaggregated data up to the provincial level (called ‘Changawat’ in Thai),” said Dr Piyanuch.

Also, many stakeholders want TNSO to add more questions in the survey questionnaire to collect more information that may prove valuable for policy making, monitoring and evaluation.

“But it is very difficult to ask people so many questions frequently. People are fatigued. Also we need to realize that in urban areas, people tend to deny answers to questionnaire from any governmental agency. In urban areas it is hard to get them to respond,” said Dr Piyanuch.

People are also concerned about sharing personal data. Thailand’s Personal Data Protection Act or PDPA is considered the first Thai law designed to govern data protection in the digital age and has been considered comparable to the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDRP). Key aspects of the PDPA include data processing, data collection, data storage, and data consent protocols.

“This is why it is very challenging to drill down any further than provincial level,” said Dr Piyanuch.

Although national tobacco use has dropped substantially over the years in the land of smiles, still TNSO data has shown that tobacco use among young people and males, needs to be more effectively addressed. Those growing tobacco crop should be encouraged to transition to other crops. Those who are using tobacco should benefit from tobacco cessation services in Thailand and get rid of this deadly addiction, said Dr Piyanuch.

Bobby Ramakant – CNS (Citizen News Service)

(Bobby Ramakant was awarded the 2008 WHO World No Tobacco Day Award and serves as Health Editor of CNS (Citizen News Service). Follow him on Twitter @BobbyRamakant or read )