In recognition of his extraordinary contribution to combatting harmful tobacco use, Dr. Palitha Abeykoon, Former Chairman of National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol in Sri Lanka, International Pubilc Health Expert, and WHO Director-General Special Envoy for COVID-19 Preparedness and Resonse for SEAR, was named one of the South-East Asia Region WHO World No Tobacco Day 2021 awardees.
Sri Lanka was one of the first countries in the world to ratify the Framework Convention on Tobacco Contro (FCTC). Sri Lanka was also one of the first countries in the region to adopt a tobacco control law in line with the Articles of the FCTC, the National Tobacco and Alcohol Act of 2006, which led to the establishment of the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA). This law also banned all forms of tobacco advertising and sponsorships, prohibited sales to those under 21 and sales through vending machines, and declared most public places smoke-free.
When Dr. Abeykoon was appointed the Chairperson of NATA in 2014, he formed crucial partnerships with the government public health network and enforcement agencies such as the Sri Lanka Police, Customs, and the Department of Excise to strengthen enforcement of tobacco control laws. He also formed a close relationship with Civil Society and NonGovernment Organizations to boost advocacy and conduct community-level programmes and interventions related to tobacco reduction.
Dr. Abeykoon’s contribution to reducing the harmful use of tobacco and alcohol in Sri Lanka is immeasurable; however, some of the outcomes of his work through NATA are as follows:
- Tobacco-Free Zones. Scaled up initiatives in communities where traders voluntarily stopped cigarette sales, resulting in 120 towns in Sri Lanka where cigarettes are not sold.
- Taxation. Advocated to increase the tobacco tax in 2016 following a modeling study that showed cigarettes are more affordable than 30 years ago.
- FCTC Project. Sri Lanka was one of 15 countries selected for the WHO FCTC Project, leading to several significant activities and policy changes.
- Ban on Smokeless Tobacco. NATA issued a Gazette notification banning the import, distribution, and sale of all forms of smokeless tobacco in Sri Lanka in 2016, including ENDS.
Through the achievements listed above, and countless others, Dr. Abeykoon’s efforts significantly contributed to the drop in cigarette sales in Sri Lanka by approximately 15% during his tenure at NATA.
Dr. Abeykoon was instrumental in obtaining support from WHO to establish the Centre for Combating Tobacco, the WHO-affiliated tobacco industry observatory in the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Dr. Abeykoo also successfully advocated for pictorial health warnings in 2015, resulting in Sri Lanka’s recognition as the first country in the WHO SouthEast Asia Region to agree to the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products.
The WHO Sri Lanka Country Office looks forward to continuing work with Dr. Abeykoon on crucial public health issues.