This article is part of our special report World No Tobacco Day.
What would the world be like if tobacco control NGOs did not exist? What kind of society would we live in? How would our lives be different if the tobacco industry had its way?
The European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention is a network of over 60 organisations working in tobacco control.
To find the answers to those questions, we probably do not need to go very far. Just one generation back in time and there you are.
Remember the way we all used to put up with tobacco smoke, despite the tears, the cough and the itch? Now just imagine it is happening today, in 2017.
Each of us would have to go to work every morning with the risk of getting burnt on public transport. Your fellow commuters, standing next to you with their cigarettes up in the air, in the crowded train carriage.
Arriving at the office, you can start your working day smelling of cold tobacco and all day long, your co-workers would light up at their desks and in meetings.
In the evening, you would be socialising in smoky bars and eating with the family in restaurants, where people would be puffing away.
Airplanes of course would have smoking and non-smoking areas, separated by a thin curtain, which gets pushed aside every time the flight attendants need to go through or a passenger needs to use the bathroom.
Your children would come back from school with chocolate cigarettes, which they would use to playfully pretend to suck on like adults do.
And everywhere you go, whichever TV channel you watch or magazine you read, there will be beautiful women telling you how successful and sexy they look while smoking, while manly men live a life of adventure and feel powerful with a white stick in their hands.
Fortunately, this reality now belongs to the past for most of us, living in Europe. This of course would not have happened without the tirelessness, the conviction and the passion of those men and women working in public health NGOs, often operating in the shadow, fighting for the right, for the basic human right to breath clean air.
This year, ENSP – the most important network of civil society organisations working in tobacco control in Europe – is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
This would just be a number if it were not for the fact that this celebration is also paying tribute to the dedication, the sweat, blood and tears of all the experts, decision makers and advocates, who have been working tirelessly to tackle this pandemic of modern times.
It is also an amazing testimonial of the journey of all the achievements and the incredible progresses in our right to protect ourselves but above all to protect our children from the harmful effect of tobacco use.
Thanks to the effort, the work and the passion of those unsung heroes, we do not have to put up with it anymore.
Looking back at the last 20 years, it is almost impossible to talk about tobacco control in Europe without mentioning the involvement of at least one ENSP member.
At every stage, from international to the very local level, ENSP members have played a vital role in changing policies, but above all, generate a cultural revolution.
The work has always been a concerted effort for a common accomplishment. This is the very essence of a network, an interconnected group, a community, a family that acts in a consistent and coordinated way. Each node adds value, each link adds strength.
We have come a long way. Like a history painter, the life of ENSP reflects the changes in tobacco control, including the battles, the struggles and the victories.
It also mirrors the progress and the changes in the European Union, as well as the wider region.
As the EU grew, new countries joined. Catering for 15 member states in 1997 and now for 28 in 2017, ENSP has managed to provide tailored support for all members, old and new, by changing its priorities, tailoring its activities and partnering with a wide range of international organisations
That includes the World Health Organisation, Campaigning for Tobacco-Free Kids and the European Respiratory Society.
But the journey has been, of course, far from smooth. Funded by the European Commission, the network negotiated florid and challenging times but ENSP resisted well in the hardest periods thanks to the dedication and perseverance of those who believed and supported its ideas.
The road ahead remains even bumpier, with an industry that now has many faces, incredible financial and political power, and above all, an aggressive survival instinct.
It will fight back, no matter what, more belligerent than ever. There are still many high mountains to move, many deep rivers to cross.
In this challenging context, the community needs to prepare for future attacks because the tobacco companies have already launched their next moves.
We need to roll up our sleeves, join forces and fight the good fight in the name of European citizens, in the name of our children and mot importantly for the health of future generations.
Let’s come even closer, let’s stand united, and let’s remain powerful.
ENSP 20th Anniversary Monograph “The Network – 20 years of Tobacco Control History in Europe” can be downloaded here.