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According to the World Health Organization, tobacco use is a cause of death for more than 5.4 million people worldwide every year. But a new review published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that by tripling the taxes on tobacco globally, 200 million tobacco deaths could be avoided by 2025.
Authors of the review, including Dr. Prabhat Jha, director of the Center for Global Health Research of St. Michael's Hospital and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, say that the tax increase would double the retail price of tobacco in some countries, as well as reduce the price difference between the cheapest and most expensive cigarettes.
They add that rather than pushing smokers to swap to a cheaper cigarette brand, the strategy would encourage them to quit smoking and discourage young people from taking up the habit.
Dr. Jha says tripling tobacco taxes would be particularly effective in low- and middle-income countries, where smoking rates are on the rise and the price of tobacco is relatively low.
But he adds that high-income countries would also see benefits from the approach. He uses France as an example, noting that the country halved its cigarette consumption between 1990 and 2005 by increasing taxes to well above inflation.
Dr. Jha adds:
"Death and taxes are inevitable, but they don't need to be in that order. A higher tax on tobacco is the single most effective intervention to lower smoking rates and to deter future smokers."
Dr. Jha points out that as well as reducing tobacco consumption, the approach would also create revenue that governments worldwide would be able to use for health care.
For example, he notes that there are around 200,000 tobacco-related deaths every year of people under the age of 70 in the US and Canada.
He estimates that even if the price of tobacco was doubled in these countries, around 70,000 deaths would be prevented and the higher taxes would generate an extra $100 billion every year for a total of $400 billion.
Sir Richard Peto, co-author of the review from the University of Oxford in the UK, says there is an "urgent need" for governments to develop strategies that will help people to give up smoking and stop youngsters from starting in the first place.
The investigators note that at the 2013 United Nations General Assembly and the World Health Organization (WHO) Assembly, countries worldwide came to an agreement that they would aim to reduce smoking prevalence by around one-third by 2025, and reduce premature deaths from cancer and other diseases by 25%.
Sir Richard says that their approach would help countries to achieve these aims.
"This study demonstrates that tobacco taxes are a hugely powerful lever and potentially a triple win - reducing the numbers of people who smoke and who die from their addiction, reducing premature deaths from smoking and yet, at the same time, increasing government income," he says, adding:
"All governments can take action by regularly raising tobacco taxes above inflation, and using occasional steep tax hikes starting with their next budget. Young adult smokers will lose about a decade of life if they continue to smoke - they've so much to gain by stopping."
The authors say that controlling tobacco marketing is another strategy that may help people to stop smoking, noting that Australia introduced plain packaging in 2011 - an action that New Zealand plans to follow this year.
Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that total smoking bans are effective in helping smokers to quit.
Written by Honor Whiteman
Copyright: Medical News Today
Not to be reproduced without the permission of Medical News Today.
Global Effects of Smoking, of Quitting, and of Taxing Tobacco, DOI: 10.1056/NEJMra1308383, Prabhat Jha, D.Phil, Richard Peto, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 2 January 2014. Open access
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