Many low- and middle-income countries are too scared by the threats and misinformation of big tobacco to raise the price of cigarettes, even though it would hugely benefit both health and the economy, according to a major new report.
The most effective measure to help people stop smoking is to impose high taxes on cigarettes, says the report by the World Health Organisation and the US National Cancer Institute. But even though smoking costs the world economy $3trn (£2.5trn) a year, poorer countries are afraid to tackle it in the most effective ways, it says.
“They are scared because of the issues raised by the tobacco industry,” said Jeremiah Paul of the WHO’s tobacco control economics unit. The industry warns of an increase in smuggling and illicit trade in tobacco, for instance, which the WHO and the US National Cancer Institute, the co-producers of the report, say does not happen.
“They are afraid of being taken to court if they increase tobacco taxes,” said Paul. “They [the industry] will scare you that tobacco taxes are anti-poor, that government revenue will go down.” But there is no evidence to support any of these claims, he said.
Six million people die every year as a result of smoking tobacco and although smoking rates are slowly going down, the numbers are increasing as the population of the world grows. There are also fears of a big expansion in Africa and the Middle East as big tobacco targets poorer countries now that hardline control measures such as bans on smoking in public places have taken effect in wealthier ones.
There are 1.1 billion smokers globally over the age of 15 and already 80% are in low- and middle-income countries. Many are already poor – an estimated 226 million smokers live in poverty. Those are the people who would benefit most from stopping, because they are least likely to get good healthcare and most likely to suffer from the disabling and economic effects of tobacco, such as losing their job.