This World No Tobacco Day 2017, we look at how tobacco poses one of the most pressing challenges of our time, and what can be done to combat the epidemic.
Smoking is still the leading preventable cause of cancer worldwide. Unlike any other product, tobacco kills up to two-thirds of long-term users and harms many others. The World Health Organization (WHO) called the global tobacco epidemic ‘one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced’.
The good news is that smoking rates in the UK and elsewhere have been steadily declining since the 1980s – thanks to a series of laws that have helped people quit smoking and prevented many young people from ever adopting the deadly habit.
But not all countries have made such progress. The damage that tobacco causes, both to health and wealth, is becoming increasingly apparent in some of the world’s poorest countries.
And with nearly 8 out of 10 of the world’s one billion smokers living in these low- and middle-income countries, it’s clear that support for tobacco control needs to be directed at them to help stop the increase in deaths.
That is why we support the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the world’s first international public health treaty. It sets out the steps that governments can take to tackle smoking, such as raising taxes on tobacco, banning tobacco advertising, introducing smoke-free zones and drawing up rules on regular packaging.
In 2014, we announced a £ 5 million investment in global tobacco control to help countries put these key recommendations into practice.
And we’re already starting to see some progress.
The global tobacco challenge
Every year, about 7 million deaths around the world are linked to tobacco – more than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. And even if smoking rates remain the same, the WHO warns that tobacco could kill up to 1 billion people this century.
This enormous loss of life has a huge impact on a personal and economic scale – and the tobacco industry has to bear a large part of the blame.
The tobacco industry is raising smoking rates by selling tobacco products as cheaply as possible, preventing governments from enacting laws to curb tobacco use, and, perhaps most shockingly, aggressively marketing their products to many groups – including young people.
Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, are more able to combat this tactic, but many low- and middle-income countries are now struggling to do the same. It often comes down to how much money each country can afford to spend on the problem, and the strength of the tobacco industry there.
Without urgent action, the challenge of tobacco in these countries will increase even more as they become the targets of the tobacco industry. By 2030, it is estimated that the majority of deaths due to tobacco will be in low- and middle-income countries.
And tobacco does more than just kill, it’s also a severe economic blow to people and countries – smoking accounts for around £ 320 billion in healthcare costs worldwide.
To help tackle this, says Alison Cox, our director of prevention, it is now more important than ever to share what the UK has learned with those countries.
“Tobacco is ruining lives and putting additional pressure on health services that already have too few resources,” she says. “It is essential to share knowledge on how to reduce the devastating loss caused by smoking and support other countries in the fight against tobacco.”
Tax tobacco, save lives
“The single most effective tool to reduce tobacco use is to increase excise duty on tobacco products,” says Professor Corne Van Walbeek, an economics expert from the University of Cape Town.
Studies have shown that taxing a pack of 20 cigarettes with $ 1 international dollars (a hypothetical currency used as a means of comparing costs from one country to another) can result in nearly 1 in 10 smokers around the world stop.
In low- and middle-income countries, the same tax increase could lead to 58 million fewer daily adults smoking and 13 million fewer deaths each year.
“Increasing the tax increases the price of cigarettes, and discourages people from starting to smoke and encourages smokers to quit,” says Walbeek. “It also reduces the use of tobacco among remaining smokers, and encourages those who quit to quit.
“Tax-induced increases in the excise tax are particularly effective in reducing smoking among the poor and young people, two particularly vulnerable groups.”
Taxing tobacco is also a useful tool because the money it raises can be used to improve health care. The same $ 1 tax could raise more than £ 100 billion worldwide – money that could be used to pay for smoking cessation services or other health care services.
In the Philippines, money raised through tobacco taxes has been used to help improve health care for 14 million families by expanding access to health care and upgrading medical facilities.
What are we doing to fight tobacco around the world?
In 1954, we helped fund the first study to link tobacco with cancer. Since then, we have continued to fund similar research and campaign for laws that will help people quit smoking and prevent young people from engaging in deadly addiction.
And we want to help other countries do the same.
That’s why we’ve set up our International Tobacco Control Program, which funds research and supports low- and middle-income countries and introduces effective tobacco control laws.
And today we are delighted to announce that we are entering into new partnerships with two of the world leaders in tobacco control – the Framework Convention Alliance and the University of Cape Town.
We are providing around £ 1 million to support these organizations in the fight against tobacco worldwide.
The Framework Convention Alliance will unite national and international organizations to support them through the use of the FCTC, the key tool to help countries combat big tobacco and save lives.
And researchers at the University of Cape Town will lead the development of the WHO Tobacco Tax Knowledge Center.
“The tobacco industry is an exploitative industry that feeds its customers. That is why we want to help people in all possible ways to avoid smoking, ”says Walbeek.
The hub will support the 180 countries that have joined the FCTC to implement effective tax policies that will help people quit smoking and prevent young people from ever becoming fatal addicts.
We will continue to ensure that tobacco remains on the international health agenda.
So the tobacco industry has no other countries to pick up.