In a new report, the World Health Organization strongly urges governments to raise taxes on tobacco in a global effort to reduce the number of deaths from tobacco-related disease.
The report states that during the 20th century, tobacco use claimed an estimated 100 million lives, and 6 million lives continue to be lost each year due to use of the substance. That figure represents a loss of life greater than the combined deaths from HIV and AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
Use of tobacco is the largest preventable risk factor for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), particularly cancers, cardiovascular and lung diseases and diabetes. Progress and development in low- and middle-income countries is threatened by these diseases, the report argues, where more than 80% of deaths from these conditions occur.
Projections find that this NCD burden on low- and middle-income countries will rise unless decisive global action is taken. “The fate of millions of lives depends upon all of us acting decisively to end this global epidemic,” writes Dr. Oleg Chestnov in a foreword to the report.
The solution proposed by the World Health Organization (WHO) is to raise taxes to more than 75% of the retail price. The organization claims this is “among the most effective and cost-effective tobacco control interventions,” costs little to implement and increases government revenues.
The report also contains guidelines on how to implement price and tax measures to reduce the demand for tobacco. However, WHO note that, despite the knowledge that appropriate tax measures against tobacco are effective at lowering rates of disease and death and generate income for government treasuries:
“Tobacco companies are also aware of this and make every effort to stop governments implementing public health-driven policies regarding tobacco product taxation. Industry tactics include interfering with the development of taxation policies and lobbying representatives of finance, economy and other relevant ministries and authorities where health expertise and knowledge of the requirements of the WHO [Framework Convention on Tobacco Control] is often deficient.”
Consequently, despite the effectiveness of this high-tax intervention, the report notes that only a few countries have taken this step. By 2014, 33 countries had implemented high-tax measures, but still only 10% of the world’s population live in countries with tobacco taxes that WHO consider to be sufficiently high.
WHO argue that “all countries have the ability to implement strong tobacco control policies to protect their people,” emphasizing again that “millions of lives every year depend on our actions.”
Analyzing the results of studies into the influence of tobacco tax increases on public health, the report finds that, in high-income countries, a 10% increase in the price of tobacco will reduce overall tobacco use by an average of 4%.
Low- and middle-income countries generally report greater variation in tobacco-use reductions associated with price increases, but the report finds that a 10% price increase results in an average reduction in tobacco use of 5%.
Studies generally show that half of the decline in tobacco use associated with higher taxes and prices is as a result of users quitting smoking together, WHO say. The remaining half of the decline in use coming from users switching from daily to occasional smoking, or smoking fewer cigarettes each day.
Further bolstering their claim for higher tobacco taxes, WHO point out that increased taxation is the least costly of all tobacco control policies, costing just $0.05 per person per year in low- and middle-income countries.