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Published: 7/31/2008

The $500 million smoke-out

IT USED to be that cartoonists pictured tycoons smoking big cigars as a symbol of their power and affluence. Today that image needs to be reworked, as Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg demonstrated with their announcement that they will spend $500 million in an attempt to rid the planet of smoking.

The Microsoft founder and the New York City mayor and businessman have chosen the worthiest of goals, one with the potential to save tens of millions of lives. The World Health Organization estimates that smoking will kill as many as 1 billion people in this century, 10 times more than it did in the 20th century.

As much as good health and humanitarian impulse are met by this grand gesture, it also completes a neat historical and geographical circle. Tobacco use was the gift of the Americas to the world's people. Centuries later, two American billionaires are putting up their money to rid the world of this exported vice that seemed at first a blessing.

As the New York Times reported, Mr. Bloomberg's foundation plans to commit $250 million to the cause over four years on top of a $125 million gift announced two years ago. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is allocating $125 million over five years to follow all the billions they have given to combat AIDS and malaria.

The $500 million will be deployed in a multifaceted program dubbed Mpower and will include urging governments to take steps to raise taxes on tobacco, to prohibit smoking in public places, to ban advertising to children and cigarette give-aways, and to start anti-smoking advertising campaigns.

It is going to be a very tough challenge. People in the United States are much more concerned about tobacco's dangers than in many other parts of the world. In poorer countries, where life is cheap and cigarettes are a fleeting pleasure, persuading people of smoking's proven long-term ills will be a tough sell.

But there's money now to make that point - and it can make a real difference.



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