Leading cause of death, illness and impoverishment
The tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced. It kills nearly six million people a year of whom more than 5 million are users and ex users and more than 600 000 are nonsmokers exposed to second-hand smoke. Approximately one person dies every six seconds due to tobacco and this accounts for one in 10 adult deaths. Up to half of current users will eventually die of a tobacco-related disease.
Nearly 80% of the more than one billion smokers worldwide live in low- and middle-income countries, where the burden of tobacco-related illness and death is heaviest.
Tobacco users who die prematurely deprive their families of income, raise the cost of health care and hinder economic development.
In some countries, children from poor households are frequently employed in tobacco farming to provide family income. These children are especially vulnerable to "green tobacco sickness", which is caused by the nicotine that is absorbed through the skin from the handling of wet tobacco leaves.
Because there is a lag of several years between when people start using tobacco and when their health suffers, the epidemic of tobacco-related disease and death has just begun.
Surveillance is key
Good monitoring tracks the extent and character of the tobacco epidemic and indicates how best to tailor policies. Fifty-nine countries, representing almost half of the world's population, have strengthened their monitoring to include recent or representative data for both adults and youths, collecting this data at least every five years. Still, more than 100 countries either lack such data or have no data at all.
Second-hand smoke kills
Second-hand smoke is the smoke that fills restaurants, offices or other enclosed spaces when people burn tobacco products such as cigarettes, bidis and water pipes. There is no safe level of exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke.
Every person should be able to breathe smoke-free air. Smoke-free laws protect the health of non-smokers, are popular, do not harm business and encourage smokers to quit.1
Tobacco users need help to quit
Studies show that few people understand the specific health risks of tobacco use. For example, a 2009 survey in China revealed that only 37% of smokers knew that smoking causes coronary heart disease and only 17% knew that it causes stroke.2
Among smokers who are aware of the dangers of tobacco, most want to quit. Counselling and medication can more than double the chance that a smoker who tries to quit will succeed.
Picture warnings work
Hard-hitting anti-tobacco advertisements and graphic pack warnings – especially those that include pictures – reduce the number of children who begin smoking and increase the number of smokers who quit.
Studies carried out after the implementation of pictorial package warnings in Brazil, Canada, Singapore and Thailand consistently show that pictorial warnings significantly increase people's awareness of the harms of tobacco use.
Mass media campaigns can also reduce tobacco consumption, by influencing people to protect non-smokers and convincing youths to stop using tobacco.
Ad bans lower consumption
Bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship can reduce tobacco consumption.
Taxes discourage tobacco use
Tobacco taxes are the most effective way to reduce tobacco use, especially among young people and poor people. A tax increase that increases tobacco prices by 10% decreases tobacco consumption by about 4% in high-income countries and by up to 8% in low- and middle-income countries.
Only 27 countries, representing less than 8% of the world's population, have tobacco tax rates greater than 75% of the retail price.
In countries with available information, tobacco tax revenues are 154 times higher than spending on tobacco control.
(Source WHO. Fact sheet N°339)