Jul 31, 2008

Lifestyle - Stub out that weed for ever

WHEN two of the world’s richest and mightiest men pledge to destroy an enemy, it is time to pay attention. Bill Gates, the former boss of Microsoft who now devotes all his time to his charitable foundation, travelled this week to New York, the city run by Michael Bloomberg, to join his fellow billionaire’s campaign to stamp out smoking.
Have the two potentates met their match? Despite decades of work by health campaigners, more than one billion people still smoke today. Smoking kills up to half of those who fail to quit puffing, reducing their lives by an average of 10 to 15 years. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says more than 5m people a year die early from the effects (direct or indirect) of tobacco. That exceeds the combined toll of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
Despite that dismal situation, there are three reasons to give the latest pair of campaigners a slim chance of success: money, methods and motivation. Messrs Gates and Bloomberg vowed to spend a combined total of $500m on discouraging the weed. Since Mr Bloomberg’s charity had already announced an award of $125m earlier, the new money pledged this week totalled a “mere” $375m: $250m from the mayor, and a fresh $125m from the software magnate’s philanthropic outfit.

How will this cash be spent? In quite innovative ways, and that is a second reason for optimism. Hitherto, most anti-smoking funds have been channelled through a few large bureaucracies. But Mr Bloomberg’s charity wants to let a thousand flowers bloom: in other words, to lend a hand to many initiatives, both public and private, to see what works. There will be a competitive grant scheme for poor countries where the tobacco habit is spreading.
The very fact that two giants are teaming up is a landmark in American philanthropy—comparable to Warren Buffett’s decision, two years ago, to put his fortune at the disposal of Mr Gates’s foundation. As part of their joint commitment, Mr Gates is giving some of his $125m directly to Mr Bloomberg’s charity; the rest will go to carefully monitored projects in India, China and other places where the number of smokers is rising relentlessly.
Then there is motivation. There are other big players in this cause, and that should induce every new entrant to try bringing something fresh to the party. Earlier this year the WHO started a campaign against tobacco known as MPower. One of its selling points was that in contrast with many other projects, it had a fairly clear idea about what was needed. WHO experts have listed a series of tactics, ranging from aggressive public education to a rise in tobacco taxes, that deliver results. (Even if high taxes lead to some smuggling and diversion, studies done in Brazil, for example, show that fiscal measures do curb consumption.) The World Bank, which funded that research, is also thought to be ready to join the anti-smoking scrum after years of paying little attention.
A crowded field, indeed. But having an extra $500m from two hard-driven billionaires surely won’t hurt.

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