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Singapore - World Health Organization (WHO) chief Margaret Chan Tuesday branded the tobacco industry a "ruthless and devious enemy" and called on governments and civil society groups to unite against cigarette firms.
Speaking at a conference on tobacco and health in Singapore, the WHO director-general slammed cigarette companies for undermining a UN-backed campaign against tobacco use and its associated health risks.
"We have an enemy, a ruthless and devious enemy, to unite us and ignite a passionate commitment to prevail," she told the delegates.
"The enemy, the tobacco industry, has changed its face and its tactics. The wolf is no longer in sheep's clothing, and its teeth are bared."
Chan said moves by cigarette firms to challenge the legality of government measures to protect public health amounted to interference in countries' domestic affairs.
"Paying people to use a country's judicial system to challenge the legality of measures that protect the public is a flagrant abuse of the judicial system and a flagrant affront to national sovereignty," she said.
"This is direct interference with a country's internal affairs. We will not let them do these kinds of tactics."
Chan, a former Hong Kong health chief who was elected to the WHO's top post in November 2006, said legal actions filed by tobacco companies against the authorities in Uruguay, Norway, Australia and Turkey were designed to weaken their resolve to control tobacco use.
"What the industry wants to see is a domino effect," she said.
"When one country's resolve falters under the pressure of costly, drawn-out litigation and threats of billion-dollar settlements, others with similar intentions are likely to topple as well."
Chan urged civil society groups to take up the slack when government efforts are weakened due to the tobacco industry's challenge.
"We need this kind of outcry, this kind of rage," she said.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco use kills nearly six million people each year, including more than 600,000 who are non-smokers but exposed to second-hand smoke.
The UN health watchdog said on its website that unless urgent action is taken, the annual death toll could rise to more than eight million by 2030.