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Baird honored with lifetime achievement award for anti-tobacco work

South African helped ban smoking on airlines in 1980s

Baird honored with lifetime achievement award for anti-tobacco work

Denis Baird, right, receives the General Conference Health Ministries Medal of Distinction from Associate Health Ministries Director Dr. Peter Landless in a ceremony on December 17 in Johannesburg. Baird’s wife Bridget holds the award.

Long since retired, Denis Baird, now 92, was working as a full-time Seventh-day Adventist minister and in 1975 launched what is now South Africa’s National Council Against Smoking, an organization that helped the country in the 1980s to ban smoking on South African Airways domestic flights.

The Adventist world church last month awarded Baird the General Conference Health Ministries Medal of Distinction for his lifetime of service and promotion of healthful living.

“It’s richly merited. Denis was a pathfinder. Before him, no one was working on tobacco control in South Africa,” said Dr. Yussuf Saloojee, executive director of National Council Against Smoking.

Many health workers say South Africa’s tobacco industry was intertwined with the apartheid government and that going against it meant long shot odds. In 1967, Baird’s angle to challenge tobacco companies was a simple request: tell him the amount of nicotine and tar in their cigarettes.

When companies refused to offer information on ingredients, he contacted what is now the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Officials there agreed to study the cigarettes and requested 200 samples of each cigarette brand. For the study’s integrity, they needed them delivered personally.

Baird took a flight to Atlanta, his luggage mostly filled with cartons of cigarettes. High above the Atlantic Ocean, he said he remembers having no doubts on the outcome of the study.

“I felt very strongly that it was going to work. We had strong indications that cigarettes in South Africa were very dangerous.” The rate of lung cancer among smokers in South Africa was much higher than in other countries, he said.

Months later the results concurred. Cigarettes in South Africa were found to contain more than double the rates of nicotine and tar than most cigarettes produced in other countries.

The results created an uproar when they were published in 1978 by Dr. Harry Seftel, a professor of medicine at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and a co-founder of the council with Baird.

Baird’s council work was in addition to his job as a full-time local church minister. His ministry career also included posts as a conference president in Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – and the Cape Conference in South Africa.

Today, some 5.4 million people die annually due to tobacco related illnesses and this figure is projected to increase to more than 8 million a year by the year 2030, church health officials say.

Some countries have shown a steady decrease in smoking, such as the United States and Australia. But smoking is increasing in other parts of the world, including many developing countries, health experts say.

“Unless interventions are put in place and on a wide and broad scale, these statistics are unlikely to improve,” said Dr. Peter Landless, associate Health Ministries director for the Adventist Church.

“The battle will never be won unless current smokers are targeted and assisted to stop smoking,” Landless said. “It is crucial and important to focus on preventing the initiation of tobacco use, but it is equally important to assist people to stop smoking as well as to lobby for tobacco restrictions and control.”

In 2000, the American Cancer Society gave the South Africa Government’s Ministry of Health a Luther Terrey Award for its support of tobacco legislation. The society said smoking rates in 1998 had dropped 30 percent since 1991 because of government efforts, which serve as a model for other low-income countries in dealing with tobacco industries.

“[Baird] is a role model,” said Saloojee. “The foundations were laid by the work that he did.”