Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 2, 2003
Tarbox's courage had profound effect
Every year 45,000 Canadians die from tobacco use
By SUZANNE ELSTON
It is a strange quirk of human nature that people we never meet can have a profound effect on us. Political and religious leaders, authors and actors can impact our lives as deeply as those we love and hold most dear.
Last February I was sitting in a doctor's office waiting for my daughter and picked up a copy of Maclean's magazine to pass the time. I was thumbing through the pages when a photograph caught my eye. It was the profile of a strikingly beautiful woman giving an impassioned speech. Her left hand clutched a microphone and her right was extended toward the crowd. Her face was a torment of emotion and her eyes were alive with fire. What struck me most about the picture was that the woman was completely bald.
The woman was Barb Tarbox, a 42-year-old stay-at-home mother from Edmonton, who a few months earlier had gone for her annual check-up only to discover that she was terminally ill with lung cancer.
When she was told that the cancer had already spread to her bones and brain and that she only had a few months to live, Tarbox made an extraordinary commitment. She decided that she would spend what little time she had left spreading her anti-smoking message to students across Canada.
I suspect what I found so compelling about Tarbox's story was that it paralleled my own life in so many ways. Like Tarbox, I had succumbed to peer pressure when I was a young teenager and started smoking. Like Tarbox, I have been married for 20 years and have a preteen daughter. Gratefully, unlike Tarbox, I somehow miraculously escaped my addiction to nicotine.
When I read that Barb Tarbox died on Sunday, May 18, I felt like I had lost a friend of extraordinary courage that I never had the privilege to get to know. In her dying months, Barb delivered her message to an estimated 50,000 people - most them were students.
Wherever she went, the reaction was the same. Students clutched each other and wept while Tarbox talked about losing the most important things in her life.
"I have to say goodbye to the most incredible daughter I could ever have dreamt of, and my husband of 20 years," she reported to Maclean's. After each lecture, Tarbox received hundreds of emails, letters and cards full of crumbled up cigarettes, along with promises to never smoke again.
The greatest tragedy of Tarbox's death is that she was not alone. Every year, over 45,000 people die in Canada from tobacco use. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 4.9 million people annually lose their lives to smoking. It is feared that the death rate from smoking related illnesses could double within two decades, bringing the toll to 10 million per year. In total, an estimated 1.2 billion people around the world smoke, with two-thirds of smokers living in the developing world.
It is perfectly appropriate and fitting that two days after Barb's death, the WHO unanimously adopted the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) aimed at curbing tobacco-related deaths and disease. The FCTC is the first international treaty negotiated under the auspices of the WHO and requires countries to impose restrictions on tobacco advertising, sponsorship and promotion. They must also establish new labelling and clean indoor air controls and strengthen legislation to clamp down on tobacco smuggling.
"Today, we are acting to save billions of lives and protect people's health for generations to come," Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the WHO, said to the 56th World Health Assembly. "Now we must see this convention come into force as soon as possible, and countries must use it as the basis of their national tobacco-control legislation." Four years in the making, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control has been a priority in the WHO's global work to stem the tobacco epidemic. At least 40 of the 192 member countries of the WHO must ratify the convention before it takes effect.
"We must do our utmost to ensure that young people everywhere have the best opportunities for a healthy life. By signing, ratifying and acting on this tobacco convention, we can live up to this responsibility," said Dr. Brundtland.
I think Barb Tarbox would have approved.
Recommended websites: World No Tobacco Day is May 31. For more information about the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control or World No Tobacco Day, go to www.who.int.
For more information about Barb Tarbox's amazing courage, visit www.barbtarbox.com.
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