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Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire philanthropist and mayor of New York, is stepping up his global campaign against tobacco companies with $220m in fresh grants to smoking control projects around the world.
Over the next four years, Mr Bloomberg’s foundation has pledged to substantially increase support to governments and charities in low- and middle-income countries over the next four years.
The money – adding to $380m already spent over the past six years – will include extra support for legal advice to countries fighting court cases brought by tobacco companies, building on an initial campaign Mr Bloomberg backed in Uruguay last year.
In a sign of industry’s aggressive pushback, tobacco companies have sued not only in Australia but also challenged Uruguay’s requirement for large-scale graphic warnings of the health impact on tobacco packaging.
Mr Bloomberg has become a significant thorn in the side of the tobacco industry. His controversial 2003 policy to ban smoking in New York bars and nightclubs has been emulated around the world. More recently, New York has banned smoking in public parks and beaches. The city says only 14 per cent of its residents smoke, a 35 per cent decline since Mr Bloomberg took office in 2002.
Asked about the challenge of tackling the big tobacco companies, Mr Bloomberg – who quit smoking himself in the mid 1980s, told the Financial Times: “Bring it on.”
“Companies are selling something that they know beyond any doubt is killing people,” he said in an interview ahead of the World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Singapore. “If GM sold a car with a defect that killed people, how long would we permit that to go on? But Congress has protected manufacturers. It’s a disgrace.”
He added: “Government’s obligation is to inform you … They should hold manufacturers responsible.”
Mr Bloomberg said his philanthropic activities in public health focused on areas of high need where others were not providing support, led by antismoking campaigns and efforts to tackle road traffic accidents.
“Very few people have focused on tobacco, which is going to kill a billion people this century,” he said.
He has supported programmes to measure the impact of antismoking policies, and assess progress by countries in adopting those shown to work, including higher tobacco taxes and tougher restrictions on advertising.
He said most of the new money would go to supporting existing projects, which were run in co-operation with leading agencies including the World Health Organisation and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I guess I’m a believer that if you want to kill yourself, you can kill yourself,” he said. “But the New York City smoking laws are designed to protect workers in the workplace.”