Friday, August 18, 2006

Bloomberg's $164m private war on smoking

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire and former smoker, is to pour $US125 million ($164 million) of his money into a worldwide campaign against smoking, a cause he said was largely neglected by philanthropists. Mr Bloomberg, ranked by Forbes magazine as the 40th-richest American with an estimated wealth of more than $US5 billion, banned smoking in New York bars and restaurants in 2003. "Tobacco is the world's leading killer," said Mr Bloomberg, who was first elected Mayor in 2001. "Smoking doesn't just hurt smokers, it also harms and can kill people around them."

The personal donation aimed to make the world tobacco-free by improving programs that help smokers stop and prevent children from starting, he said. Mr Bloomberg built his wealth after founding the financial information company that bears his name, and he gives away millions of dollars each year.

Now that the 64-year-old Republican is in his last term and still enjoying sky-high approval numbers, every word he utters and move he makes outside city limits stirs speculation about his future plans. He has said repeatedly he will not run for US president and plans to create a foundation for full-time charitable work when he leaves City Hall in 2009.

Bloomberg, who quit smoking about 30 years ago, said on Tuesday that he recently bought a building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to house his foundation and said the anti-tobacco initiative was an example of what the foundation would do. The Mayor typically writes his charitable cheques without announcing that he is doing so, but he made a special effort to publicise this donation, which will be spread among several established organisations that have not yet been selected. "Unless we take urgent action, this century a billion people will die from smoking," Bloomberg said. "It is one of the world's biggest killers, and it has sadly been overlooked by the philanthropic community."

John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society, said the gift would go a long way towards stopping smoking worldwide. "There has never been this kind of philanthropy dedicated to tobacco control," Dr Seffrin said. "Once again, the Mayor's making history, and this will save more lives than any other way that money could be spent."

Mr Bloomberg, who outlawed smoking in city bars and restaurants during his first term, said the funds would help jump-start an international no-smoking drive over two years. Recipients will use the cash for programs that help smokers quit and educate children about the dangers of starting; for funds to push for bans and higher tobacco taxes in other cities and countries; and for a system to track global tobacco use and the effectiveness of anti-smoking efforts. According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide are smokers. In 2003, the WHO adopted an anti-tobacco treaty that requires participants to restrict tobacco advertising, put tougher health warnings on cigarette packets, enact tax hikes and impose smoking bans. The effort mirrors what Mr Bloomberg already has begun. Besides the smoking ban, the city health department runs an aggressive program focused on quitting. Nearly 1.2million New Yorkers smoke, and health officials have given out thousands of free nicotine patches.


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