The COVID-19 pandemic hit an unprepared world hard. Public health, social and economic tolls have been unprecedented in recent decades. By mid-May 2021, more than 168 million people were infected and 3.5 million had died from the disease. Based on estimated excess deaths for 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently indicated that the death toll is likely to be higher.

While this world crisis has unraveled social life across countries, the equally devastating decades-old pandemic of tobacco use has continued unabated to claim lives and make people sick, as it is causally linked to diseases of almost every organ of the body. About 25% of all heart disease deaths and 80% of lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking, and many others are caused by exposure to secondhand smoke, for example.

Another but devastating pandemic

Cigarette smoking is not only the most common form of tobacco use, but one of the leading preventable risk factors for premature death worldwide , which kills more than 8 million people a year, including users and non-smokers exposed to secondhand smoke.

Rural evidence from China, Italy and other countries suggests that smokers are more likely to progress in COVID-19 severity and death compared to non-smokers. There are also significant healthcare costs for treating the diseases caused by tobacco use, as well as the indirect economic costs arising from tobacco-attributable morbidity and mortality – on average, smokers die 10 years earlier than non-smokers, which is a large human capital represents loss in countries.

The above numbers indicate an inevitable reality: tobacco use kills more people each year than COVID-19. Much worse, tobacco smoking is estimated to have killed 100 million people in the 20th century, and estimates suggest that one billion people could die from smoking this century if left unchecked.
Although with delays and inadequacies, and after much suffering in recent years, governments, international agencies and communities have come to the realization that in order to suppress the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 disease, and the social and economic disruption it brought about, a coordinated, well-organized and sustained global response is the only way out of this crisis.

To address the tobacco plague with urgency

Similarly, based on the painful lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can not remain complacent in thinking that tobacco use is just another “endemic” condition in our communities and that this addiction will never go away. However, we must acknowledge that this challenge is not easy to tackle and will require a sustained effort over the medium term, given the economic strength of the tobacco industry. It becomes clear when one understands that in nominal terms, global sales revenue of all tobacco products is expected to increase by an average of 2.5% per year between 2012 and 2025, eventually reaching US $ 888 billion by 2025, making huge gains for the generates tobacco industry. It is not surprising then to learn from a Credit Suisse report that one dollar invested in tobacco shares in 1900 was worth $ 6.3 million by 2010, 165 times more than the average industry.

As prof. Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, remarked in a recent lecture, “tobacco companies make people addicted at a young age and then keep them addicted to something they know they will kill” to retain their profit shares. But we know how to address the tobacco plague.

Indeed, the 2005 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the first global treaty negotiated under the auspices of the WHO and ratified by 182 countries with more than 90% of the world population, provides a menu of effective demand and supply reduction measures.

Key measures range from raising taxes on tobacco products to raising prices and reducing consumption and health risks, while mobilizing additional tax revenues that improve countries’ fiscal capacity to fund priority investments and programs that benefit everyone; regulations to protect people from exposure to tobacco smoke in public places; comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship; to intervene to strengthen management arrangements to deal with illegal tobacco trade across the supply chain.

While the FCTC is a solid framework for tobacco control, the full implementation of some of its provisions at national level is lagging behind.

Connect to quit

I think it’s to celebrate this year’s World No Tobacco Day under the “Commit to Quit” theme, it is appropriate to raise our collective voices to demand that countries worldwide support the adoption and full implementation of FCTC provisions at the highest political levels to end the scourge of tobacco use and nicotine addiction. To this I add the support that needs to be provided to initiatives such as Tobacco Free Portfolio, which involves working with the world’s largest financial organizations to implement tobacco-free financing policies – spanning lending, investing and insurance.

The World Bank Group (WMA) has also helped countries tackle the developmental threat posed by tobacco use. The unambiguous Operational Directive 4.76 of 1999 mandate that the WMA does not lend directly to tobacco production, processing or marketing; provide grants for investment in these activities; or guarantee investments, loans or credits for these industries . WMA policy advice, technical assistance and operations support tobacco tax increases to protect the population from health risks and to mobilize additional public revenue to help with the post-pandemic recovery.

There is no time to lose. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the potentially devastating impact of unguarded public health, social and environmental risks and their spillover effects in a rapidly changing, interconnected world. The sobering experience given to all of us by the ever-continuing pandemic clearly illustrates the high price that societies pay for lack of action in tackling global challenges, old and new. Tobacco use is a decades-old pandemic that must be suppressed once and for all around the world as a moral, public health and development requirement.

For those like me, who have lost loved ones due to lung cancer and other tobacco-related diseases, preventing smoking and using e-cigarettes by young people to make the next generation tobacco-free is not just the right thing to do; more importantly, it represents the type of collective global effort needed to address major societal risks that could undermine the development of healthy, productive and more inclusive and equitable societies.