Sunday 23rd October 2016                 Change text size:

Raise tobacco taxes to save 200m lives, scientists say

Raul Lieberwirth via flickr

Tripling taxes on tobacco around the world could prevent some 200m premature deaths from smoking-related illnesses this century, researchers have said.

In a review published by the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists argue that significantly increasing taxes would encourage smokers to quit and put younger people off taking up the habit.

They say this strategy would be particularly effective in low and middle-income countries, where, according to research by the World Health Organisation (WHO), 80% of the world’s 1.3 billion smokers now live.

“Death and taxes are inevitable, but they don’t need to be in that order”, said co-author of the review Dr Prabhat Jha, director of the Centre for Global Health Research in Toronto, Canada.

“A higher tax on tobacco is the single most effective intervention to lower smoking rates and to deter future smokers.” 

Jha points to the example of France, where cigarette consumption halved between 1990 and 2005 as taxes rose well above inflation.

An analysis by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of more than 100 separate studies concluded that a 50% increase in inflation-adjusted tobacco prices reduces consumption by about 20% in both high-income countries and low and middle-income countries.

Therefore, the scientists say, doubling inflation-adjusted prices should reduce consumption by about one third.

“It would help children not to start, and it would help many adults to stop while there’s still time”, Jha added. 

Smoking is the main cause of premature death from lung cancer and chronic conditions such as heart disease and strokes.

The review warns that if nothing is done, the number of annual tobacco-attributable deaths is likely to more than double from 5m to over 10m in the next few decades, as the young smokers of today reach middle and old age.

If current smoking patterns persist, the scientists say, tobacco will kill about 1 billion people this century.

“Worldwide, around a [half a billion] children and adults under the age of 35 are already – or soon will be – smokers and on current patterns few will quit”, warned Prof Sir Richard Peto of the University of Oxford, another co-author.

“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.”

Further reading:

Fighting the long fight against tobacco

Describing tobacco as a ‘defensive stock’ is offensive

Comic Relief to sell tobacco, arms and alcohol stocks amid ethical investment review

Pension fund drops tobacco investment after poor results

British councils announce £44m investment in tobacco firms

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