Philippe Boucher's Rendez Vous: Witold Zatonski, MD
Head of the Department of Epidemiology and Cancer Prevention with the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Memorial Cancer Center and Institute of Oncology. Varsaw, Poland
Rendez-vous with Witold Zatonski, MD
By Philippe Boucher
Thursday, August 16 2000
Nota: I met with Witold Zatonski during the 11th world conference on Tobacco or Health in Chicago. A slightly different version of this interview will be published in the daily journal of the conference (in the post-conference issue).
PB : Thank you Witold for accepting our rendez-vous. May I ask you to introduce yourself?
Witold Zatonski : I am a physician and a professor of cancer epidemiology in Varsaw where I am head of the Department of Epidemiology and Cancer Prevention with the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Memorial Cancer Center and Institute of Oncology.
Q1. First question : Can you tell me about the meeting you just had with this Chicago based journalist for a local Polish TV channel?
WZ : She still had this stereotyped image of Poland plagued with a huge prevalence of smokers and with smoking as a Polish national cultural icon. In fact looking at the data she had about the Polish community living in Chicago I was very surprised to discover their smoking prevalence was higher than now in Poland ! 50% of smokers among the men and 35% among the women ! Obviously this population has been bypassed by the US tobacco control campaigns : my guess is they have kept smoking habits that used to be dominant in Poland before we were able to change our people's perception and behavior about smoking. I told her that the media had a huge role to play and that this Polish TV channel in Chicago had to get much more involved in tobacco control.
Q2. How did such a radical change happen in Poland ?
WZ : The mass media played a very important role. We were lucky that our campaigns against smoking started at the same time the new media began to grow in our newly democratic country. When I decided in 1991 to organize in Poland a Great Polish Smokeout (after the Great American Smokeout) I visited the journalists of the Gazeta Viborcza that is now our biggest daily newspaper. They made fun of me but directed me to one of them who was very much anti-tobacco and labeled a fanatic by his peers. His help was crucial to launch this program with the full support of the newspaper for this loterry for smokers who quit.
Now, more than 2 million people in Poland claimed they have quit because of the Great Polish Smokeout and 27 million have heard about it (there are 44 million people in Poland). And the Gazeta Viborcza is very proud to have been associated to it from the start. Obviously this has created positive bonds between us and the impact has been tremendous.
Q3. what do you see as the main milestones for the establishment of tobacco control policies in Poland ?
WZ : in 1995 we passed the first tobacco control bill and in 1997 the new health warnings on the packs were adopted. They are the biggest warnings in Europe. The 1995 legislation was incomplete because we had not been able to pass a total ad ban. Looking back at the tobacco industry plans for Poland shows very well how much we succeeded. In the early 90s, the transnational tobacco companies expected to increase their sales in Poland by 10 to 20%. They never reached this objective : in the last ten years there has been a 10% decline in tobacco consumption in Poland ! The brand new plant Reynolds built has never run at its full capacity. This decrease is nearly 100% due to a change in attitude of the people toward tobacco and the tobacco companies. The prices did not help us and the industry spent $ 100 million per year in advertising to try to promote the sales. Except for TV (where advertising was prohibited) their ads were everywhere : sometimes 50% of the billboards were tobacco ads and the newspapers as well . . .
Q4. What about the new tobacco control act ?
WZ: It is possible that this excess of advertising turned against them and helped us to convince the new Parliament to pass a new tobacco control act in october 1999.
This time the Parliament passed a very comprehensive act with 0.5% of the tobacco taxes dedicated to funding prevention, and a total ban of all advertising and sponsoring. This act was passed by a vast majority : 377 in favor, 11 against. By January 2001 all the tobacco ads on billboards will be gone, and all the ads in the newspapers will be gone in January 2002. Our first attempt in 1995 to pass a total ban was too early. The people had not yet really understood how cynical the tobacco companies are, how they shamelessly target the kids. In 1999 when talking with the parliamentarians many were outraged at all those ads targeting their grandchildren. Everybody had turned against the industry.
Q5. I know your involvement and your leadership have been very important. What's next ?
WZ : there is now in Poland a large group of very competent and dedicated anti-tobacco advocates and leaders. They still turn a lot to me but I feel they have to grow more independent, more self assured.
The passage of the new law shows how committed most of our politicians now are.
I feel it would be useful that I step down a little so that new leaders learn how to carry on without relying constantly on me. Even if I remain available for advice I would like to pass the relay in Poland and get more involved at the international level to share our experience with other countries.
PB: Thank you Witold for taking the time to be with us today.
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