Governments 'failing to curb death toll from tobacco'

Posted: 29 February 2008

Author: Kanaga Raja

Only 5 per cent of the world's population is protected by comprehensive national tobacco smoke-free legislation, according to the first global analysis of the problem by the World Health Organisation. It found that governments collect 500 times more money in tobacco taxes each year than they spend on anti-tobacco efforts - a failure that could kill up a billion people in this century.

According to the Global Tobacco Epidemic 2008, report 95 per cent of the world's population is not covered by any one of the key interventions of effective advertising, promotion and sponsorship bans: smoke-free spaces, prominent packet warnings, protection from deceptive and misleading advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and support in giving up smoking. Although an increasing number of countries have passed legislation mandating smoke-free environments, the overwhelming majority of countries have no smoke-free laws, very limited laws or ineffective enforcement. More than half of countries, accounting for nearly two thirds of the population of the world, allow smoking in government offices, workplaces and other indoor places. Only 24 of the 179 countries surveyed protect restaurant workers from tobacco smoke, said WHO. Smoke-free policies in workplaces in several industrialized nations have reduced total tobacco consumption among workers by an average of 29 per cent. Weak health warnings on tobacco packets - or no warnings at all - continue to be the global norm, even though bannkng all forms of tobacco advertising and promotion is one of the most effective ways for countries to protect the health of their people.

Tax failure

The WHO says tobacco tax increases are the most effective way to reduce tobacco use, and also have the benefit of increasing government revenues. Although many countries have raised tobacco taxes, they remain low in the overwhelming majority of countries. Governments around the world collect more than $200 billion in tobacco taxes each year, but they spend less than one fifth of 1 per cent of that amount on tobacco control.

While more than four-fifths of high-income countries tax tobacco at more than 50 per cent of the retail price, less than a quarter of low- and middle-income countries do so. This is particularly disturbing, says WHO, given the shift in the epidemic from high-income countries to developing countries. Increasing taxes in all countries is essential, it says.

Tobacco - 1 in 2
Tobacco - 1 in 2
From the WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2008.
The WHO says that although tobacco deaths rarely make headlines, it kills one person every six seconds. Tobacco kills a third to half of all people who use it, on average 15 years prematurely. It also causes 1 n 10 deaths among adults worldwide - more than five million people a year.

Death toll By 2030, unless urgent action is taken, tobacco's annual death toll will rise to more than eight million. If current trends continue unchecked, it is estimated that around 500 million people alive today will be killed by tobacco. During this twenty-first century, tobacco could kill up to one billion people, said WHO. Tobacco use is growing fastest in low-income countries, due to steady population growth coupled with tobacco industry targeting, that ensures that millions of people become fatally addicted each year. More than 80 per cent of the world's tobacco-related deaths will be in low- and middle-income countries by 2030. The shift of the tobacco epidemic to the developing world will lead to unprecedented levels of disease and early death in countries where population growth and the potential for increased tobacco use are highest and where health-care services are least available, said WHO. The WHO warns that lost economic opportunities in highly populated, developing countries - many of which are manufacturing centres of the global economy - will be severe as the tobacco epidemic worsens, because half of all tobacco-related deaths occur during the prime productive years. Kanaga Raja is a researcher with the Third World Network based in Geneva, Switzerland. This is a shortened version of his article which first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS), Issue No. 6410, 8 February 2008.