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World No Tobacco Day: Why tobacco remains a global threat

by Skye Curtis | Analysis

31 May 2017

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A man sitting on the side of a road smoking

This World No Tobacco Day 2017, we’re taking a look at how tobacco poses one of the most urgent challenges of our time, and what can be done to curb the epidemic.

Smoking is still the biggest 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 Organisation (WHO) has called the global tobacco epidemic ‘one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced’.

The good news is that in the UK and elsewhere, smoking rates have been steadily decreasing since the 1980s – thanks to a range of laws that have helped people to stop smoking and put off many young people from ever taking up the lethal habit.

But not all countries have made such progress. The damage that tobacco causes, both to health and wealth, is becoming increasingly obvious in some of the world’s poorest countries.

And with almost 8 in 10 of the world’s one billion smokers living in these low- and middle-income countries, it’s clear that support for tobacco control must be turned towards them, to help stop the rise in deaths.

That’s why we support the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the world’s first international public health treaty. It lays out the steps governments can take to tackle smoking such as raising taxes on tobacco, banning tobacco advertising, introducing smoke-free areas and setting rules on plain packaging.

Back in 2014 we announced a £5 million investment in global tobacco control to help countries put these important recommendations into practice.

And we’re already starting to see some progress.

The global tobacco challenge

Every year around 7 million deaths around the world are linked to tobacco – more than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. And even if smoking rates only stay 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 must take a large share of the blame.

The tobacco industry causes smoking rates to rise by selling tobacco products as cheaply as possible, preventing governments from introducing laws to limit tobacco use, and, perhaps most shockingly, aggressively marketing their products to many groups – including young people.

Some countries, like the UK, are more able to combat these tactics, but many low and middle income countries are now struggling to do the same. This 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’ve become the targets of the tobacco industry. By 2030, it’s estimated that the majority of deaths from tobacco will be in low- and middle-income countries.

And tobacco does more than just kill, it’s also a serious economic drain on people and countries –smoking accounts for around £320 billion in healthcare costs globally.

To help tackle this, Alison Cox, our director of prevention, says it’s now more important than ever to share what the UK has learnt with those countries.

“Tobacco devastates lives and puts additional strain on already under-resourced health services,” she says. “Sharing knowledge of how to reduce the devastating loss caused by smoking and supporting other countries in the fight against tobacco is vital.”

Taxing tobacco, saving lives

“The single most effective tool to reduce tobacco use is raising the excise tax on tobacco products,” says Professor Corne Van Walbeek, an expert in economics from the University of Cape Town.

Studies have shown that taxing a pack of 20 cigarettes by $1 international dollar (a hypothetical currency used as a way to compare costs from one country to another) could lead to nearly 1 in 10 smokers around the world quitting.

In low and middle income countries, this same tax increase could lead to 58 million fewer daily adults smokers 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 quitters to stay quit.

“Tax-induced increases in the excise tax are particularly effective in reducing smoking among the poor and the young, two especially vulnerable groups.”

Taxing tobacco is also a useful tool because the money it raises can be used improve healthcare. The same $1 tax could raise more than £100 billion worldwide – money that could be used to pay for stop smoking services or other healthcare services.

In the Philippines, money raised through taxing tobacco has been used to help improve healthcare for 14 million families by expanding access to healthcare 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’ve continued to fund similar research and to campaign for laws that will help people to stop smoking and prevent young people from taking up the deadly addiction.

And we want to help other countries to do the same.

This is why we set up our International Tobacco Control Programme, which funds research and supports low- and middle-income countries introduce effective tobacco control laws.

And today we’re delighted to announce that we’re launching new partnerships with two of the world leaders in tobacco control – the Framework Convention Alliance and the University of Cape Town.

We’re providing around £1m to support these organisations fight the global battle against tobacco.

The Framework Convention Alliance will link up national and international organisations to support them using the FCTC, the most important tool for helping countries to combat big tobacco and save lives.

And researchers at the University of Cape Town will lead the development of the WHO tobacco taxation knowledge hub.

“The tobacco industry is an exploitative industry, feeding off its customers. That’s why we want to help people avoid smoking by all possible means,” says Walbeek.

The hub will support the 180 countries that have signed up to the FCTC to implement effective tax policies that will help people to quit smoking and prevent young people from ever taking up deadly addiction.

We will continue to make sure that tobacco remains on the international health agenda.

So that the tobacco industry is left with no other countries to pick on.