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Tobacco Free Initiative

Meeting on Tobacco and Religion

3 May 1999

Geneva, Switzerland

Meeting Report

World Health Organization

Division of Noncommunicable Diseases

Tobacco Free Initiative


 World Health Organization 1999

This document is not a formal publication of the World Health Organization (WHO), and all rights are reserved by the Organization. The document may, however, be freely reviewed, abstracted, reproduced or translated, in part or in whole, but not for sale or for use in conjunction with commercial purposes.
The views expressed in documents by named authors are solely the responsibility of those authors.


I. Introduction

II. Meeting proceedings
III. Summaries of presentations
IV. Recommendations
Annex 1 Texts of presentations
Annex 2 List of participants

I. Introduction
Religion represents a new frontier for public health in terms of partnership opportunities. To explore these opportunities, a Meeting on Tobacco and Religion was held at WHO headquarters, in Geneva, Switzerland, on 3 May 1999. Participants included Geneva-based representatives of major religions and staff members of WHO. The meeting was held with the goal of exploring new partnerships and strengthening existing ones to facilitate tobacco control activities.

II. Meeting proceedings
The meeting was chaired by Dr M.H. Khayat, Deputy Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, WHO. Dr Derek Yach, Programme Manager, WHO Tobacco Free Initiative, opened the meeting with an overview of the Tobacco Free Initiative, a WHO Cabinet project. Dr Yach underlined the importance of religious groups in tobacco control and the potential for them to contribute to preventing tobacco-related diseases at global, country, community and individual levels. The importance of the proposed Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and the part to be played by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in its development were also summarized.
Dr Khayat presented the work of the WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean in tobacco control and religion, including its publications on this topic. The spiritual dimensions of health and the ethical values underpinning public health actions in tobacco control were underlined. In addition, religion in many societies played a key role in education, which created additional opportunities for improved health education. As a sign of the growing interest in tobacco, major Muslim scholars had been involved in defining the Islamic ruling on smoking and other meetings were foreseen in the Eastern Mediterranean Region involving Orthodox, Roman Catholic and other Christian leaders.
Meeting participants from the various faiths presented the role of their religious precepts in regard to tobacco and highlighted several opportunities for expanded collaboration with public health programmes and tobacco control activities (for full text of presentations, see Annex 1).
Lastly, Pasteur Professor Jean-Claude Basset discussed the Inter-religious Platform based in Geneva together with historical aspects of tobacco and its religious dimensions. As an example, he outlined Protestant attitudes towards health more specifically the different Protestant positions on tobacco, and summarized the ethical and moral grounds for action against tobacco.
III. Summaries of presentations
For Bahá’ís, true health extends beyond physical well-being. Although the Bahá’í Teachings do not prohibit smoking, it is strongly discouraged as unclean and unhealthy. Part of this stems from the Bahá’í Teachings’ strong emphasis on scientific investigation of reality. Given the overwhelming evidence about the negative effects of smoking, the promotion of smoking - a habit that clearly causes disease and death - through advertising aimed at children and youth, particularly in developing countries, is a breach of public trust. Bahá’ís believe that religious communities have a significant role to play in health initiatives, as they give structure to community life and are important sources of encouragement, motivation and support for behavioural change.

Buddhism teaches the path of freedom. Freedom implies a way of life without dependence on anything, a life of mental clarity. This clarity comes from being free of addiction. Buddhists believe that people live in an interconnected and interdependent world. Thus, smokers would ideally respect those who choose to overcome their addiction and promote a healthier lifestyle. In addition, changing the image of the smoker from being “cool” would be a way to avoid the problem that once a habit is formed, not much can be done through prohibition.
Individuals must assume responsibility for their habit. This can be helped by positive encouragement of non-smoking. Buddhists strongly contend that people are fortunate to be born in human form in order to attain a true understanding of life. Therefore anything that harms the body or mind must be avoided. It is of prime importance to do the utmost to take care of the body and mind, both one’s one own and those of others.
Tobacco is traditionally seen in Hindu teaching as a vyasana, i.e. a dependence unnecessary for the preservation of health. The vyasana impedes attainment of the Hindu goal of spiritual life: cessation of suffering, access to bliss which is not a limited joy, and freedom from the bondage of nature. Medical science has categorically demonstrated the ill effects of smoking. Hinduism attaches importance to the human heart, a recurring central symbol used in various types of meditation. Since smoking induces cardiac disease, it should be seen as an assault on this holy seat of God. Although tobacco was not present in ancient India, its use today should be limited not only because of its medical effects but also out of consideration for others.
Islamic rulings on smoking have been defined by major Muslim scholars working from the Koran and prophetic traditions. One of the fundamental objectives of Islam is to protect the integrity of the individual. For this reason, the harmful health effects of tobacco make its consumption a contradiction of Islamic teaching. For followers of Islam, respecting these and other teachings is the way to become responsible human beings, aware of the necessity to protect the body which is a gift from God. Clear messages based on consciousness, responsibility and justice are essential to curbing the harms of tobacco. To promote individual responsibility, education and information campaigns for preventing tobacco use are proposed.
Judaism approaches nature positively, considering it to be a source of blessing. Creation is neither entirely good nor entirely bad but depends on the way we use things. The use of tobacco weakens the body’s equilibrium. It is the responsibility of each individual to avoid anything that can harm or weaken the bodily envelope that carries the soul. The Jewish tradition proposes action not through prohibition, but through educational approaches that invite individuals to use their common sense. Intellectual, physical and spiritual faculties are gifts presented to each human and striving to preserve the body is a measure of the esteem in which those gifts are held.
Orthodox Christianity
Human nature is a common good and the source of life is reflected in a unique way in each human person. Modern thought poses a problem in attacking the idea of the person independently of the real source of existence. The outcome is to talk about “my life, my will, my right to freedom” as a paramount value, separated from the common good of life. Orthodox Christianity welcomes the Tobacco Free Initiative in the hope that its efforts against tobacco will engage the holistic problem of the need to cure the human person. In practical terms, this means that effective campaigns for the Tobacco Free Initiative should see the problem of tobacco in relation to the problem of life as a whole.
Roman Catholicism
Recently, the Roman Catholic Church has taken an official position on smoking and its harmful effects. His Holiness Pope John Paul II, in his Bull of Indication of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, called for all Christians and men and women of good will to abstain from consuming tobacco products for a day with the proviso that the monetary equivalent of one day’s smoking be donated to efforts to control the HIV/AIDS epidemic and to assist those affected by this epidemic. The reaffirmation of the idea of mens sana, in corpore sano (sound mind, sound body) is reflected in the recognition by the Pontifical Council of the harmful effects of tobacco consumption.
IV. Recommendations
The Meeting made the following recommendations for future action:

  1. Focus future meetings on the ethical and moral aspects of tobacco and tobacco control;

  1. Receive and disseminate information on the effects of passive smoking;

  1. Continue the dialogue and share information, especially with religious organizations at the country level;

  1. Develop collaboration between religious organizations and WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative on evidence-based educational programmes and investigations of the harmful effects of tobacco on men, women and children.

Annex 1
Texts of Presentations
Participants kindly provided copies of their presentations which are reproduced below in the order of speaking at the Meeting.

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