Tuesday, February 19, 2008

100 Million Killed By Tobacco

WHO estimates 1 billion more deaths in 21st century.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 100 million smokers died of tobacco-related causes in the 20th century, making cigarettes the leading preventable cause of death worldwide.

The agency estimates that as many as a billion people will die from tobacco in the 21st century, if present trends continue.

According to the WHO report, “Global Tobacco Epidemic 2008,” almost two-thirds of all smokers live in only ten countries, with China accounting for as much as 30 per cent of the total. Nearly 60 per cent of Chinese men smoke cigarettes, the report claims. The other leading countries, in order of consumption, are India, Indonesia, Russia, the U.S., Japan, Brazil, Bangladesh, Germany, and Turkey.

“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,” the report concluded. Or, as the Economist puts it, “the tobacco industry is getting the world’s poor hooked before governments can respond.”

The Economist reports that the most powerful prescription for fighting the trend is higher taxes: “Studies show that raising tobacco taxes by a tenth may cause a 4 per cent drop in consumption in rich countries, and an 8 per cent drop in poor ones, with tax revenue rising despite lower sales. The agency wants a 70 per cent increase in the retail price of tobacco, which is says could prevent up to a quarter of all tobacco-related deaths worldwide.”

The eradication of tobacco use will be as difficult as fighting insect-born diseases, WHO officials say. The WHO analysis strongly asserts that “partial bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship do not work.”

In a soon-to-be-published paper by researchers at MIT and the University of California, cited by the Economist, the authors claim that “the monetary value of the health damage from a pack of cigarettes is over $35 for the average smoker, implying both that optimal taxes should be very large and that cigarette taxes are likely progressive.”

In a forward to the report, noting that 5.4 million people a year die from lung cancer and tobacco-related heart diseases, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan wrote that the world has reached “a unique point in public health history as the forces of political will, policies and funding are aligned to create the momentum needed to dramatically reduce tobacco use and save millions of lives by the middle of the century.”

What are cigarette makers doing to combat these grim revelations? According to the Economist, “The tobacco industry is regrouping in order to focus on ‘promising’ markets and escape the pesky lawsuits it is likely to face in rich, litigious countries.”

photo credit: UCR/California Museum of Photography


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