Tobacco Use Is Holding Back the Developing World

Tobacco use is the leading single cause of preventable death worldwide.

The leading causes of death around the world are not the viral or protozoan diseases that often get enormous media attention, such as HIV/AIDS, the Ebola and Zika viruses, or malaria. A different sort of malady has taken position as the number one killer worldwide – non-communicable diseases (NCDs), or diseases that are not transmitted through human contact. NCDs such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s are responsible for over 70% of global deaths each year.

Because NCDs are not contagious and are not passed through touch or exposure to bodily fluids, it is typically difficult to take any preventative measures against NCD contraction short of implementing significant lifestyle changes. For example, it is difficult to lower one’s risk for breast cancer or Alzheimer’s disease if someone has a family history of either disease. There is one big exception to this ‘rule’: tobacco use. Tobacco kills seven million people each year and is one of the top risk factors for some of the most prevalent NCDs, including Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancers. In fact, tobacco use is the leading single cause of preventable death worldwide.

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) published its2017 Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, detailing the progress of the organization’s efforts to monitor and decrease worldwide tobacco use. Nearly a decade ago, the WHO developed six specific tobacco control strategies to promote government action against tobacco use. This latest report shows that 4.7 billion people, or 63% of the world’s population, are covered by at least one of these tobacco control strategies implemented at the highest level of achievement. Some of the key findings of the report show various ways that countries have launched tangible tobacco control efforts:

  • Six countries have adopted new laws banning smoking in indoor public places
  • Six countries have reached best practice in their tobacco use cessation services
  • Thirty-four countries have enforced graphic cigarette pack warnings
  • Seven countries have introduced a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising
  • Three countries raised tobacco taxes so that they comprise at least 75% of the retail price

The majority of the WHO tobacco control strategies apply to, and directly affect tobacco users themselves, but non-users should be just as invested in the battle against tobacco consumption. Aside from the fact that nearly one million of the tobacco-related deaths each year are caused by secondhand smoke, tobacco use also has extreme economic and social impacts, drastically affecting global development goals. These impacts are immense in middle- and low-income countries, where over 80% of the world’s one billion smokers live. Economic development is hindered when families spend money on tobacco instead of household needs and education, and a country’s output is greatly decreased when premature, tobacco-related deaths deplete an otherwise healthy workforce. Tobacco-related illnesses lead to billions of dollars in healthcare costs and tobacco cultivation and waste have scientifically-proven environmental repercussions. There can be no expectations for successful sustainable development when tobacco use is still so prevalent.

While it is quite positive that well over half of the world population is covered by tobacco control strategies, what does this actually mean for ending tobacco consumption and stimulating sustainable development? The WHO itself admits that although the implementation of their strategies is an encouraging first step, it “has not been enough to end the tobacco epidemic….even though tobacco use has declined in some countries and regions, population growth means the absolute number of tobacco users is not yet decreasing.” Tobacco control strategies need to become commonplace standards across borders to see a palpable, tenable decline in tobacco consumption.

Information is the key to combating the global tobacco epidemic – tobacco consumption is a voluntary choice and fully-informed people are more likely to stop using tobacco or better yet, never start. Seven million people die preventable deaths each year, and millions more are crippling growth in their own countries. The tobacco epidemic is one of the greatest public health concerns that humans have ever faced and we will be in need of increasingly creative anti-tobacco ideas and actions for decades to come.

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