Anti-tobacco measures are reaching record numbers of people.
However, tobacco use causes more than 7 million deaths around the globe every year.
That’s because about 1 in 5 people in the world still use tobacco. About 70 percent of them are smokers.
That makes tobacco use the number one preventable cause of death worldwide.
The World Health Organization (WHO) released findings today from the latest survey of global tobacco use.
More than 60 percent of the global population, the agency says, is under governments that have implemented cigarette taxes, graphic labels on packaging, prohibitions on tobacco ads, bans on indoor smoking, or other measures to dissuade tobacco use.
That’s up from 17 percent 10 years ago, when about 1 billion people were affected by anti-tobacco measures. That total is now more than 4 billion people.
In 2007, 42 countries had at least one of these tobacco control policies. Today, 121 nations do.
“High-income countries have generally done well, but there are many — for example, in the Middle East region — that have not progressed,” Dr. Vinayak Prasad, head of WHO’s tobacco control unit, told Healthline. “What we’ve seen is low-income countries have started to do really well, but are still far behind because they started further behind.”
Measures around the world
Prasad noted that mainland sub-Saharan Africa is particularly lagging.
But 35 low- and middle-income countries have adopted bans on smoking in public buildings, workplaces, and restaurants over the past decade.
In Nepal, warnings that cover 90 percent of packaging have been slapped on tobacco products.
India introduced a tobacco cessation toll-free phone line and related programs after finding 1 in 2 Indian users were interested in quitting.
In addition, 15 percent of the population will not see ads or sponsorships by tobacco companies — a figure that WHO would like to be much higher.
Taxing tobacco works
The organization would also like to see more taxing of tobacco products.
WHO officials say this the most effective and efficient way to get people to quit, and to dissuade new potential tobacco users.
WHO has been pushing for similar taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages.
There are a few good examples of taxes being implemented, Prasad said — in the Philippines and the Gambia, for example.
“But these examples are far and few between,” he noted, attributing the lack of progress to intimidation, false economic arguments, and legal challenges by the tobacco industry.
He said those companies have been focusing recently on Asian countries, where tobacco consumption has gone up, as well as in sub-Saharan Africa.
“There’s still plenty of profits from middle-income and high-income countries, too,” he added.
Programs work in the United States
How successful can these anti-tobacco measures ultimately be in reducing smoking rates in the long term?
If the United States’ recent experience is any indication, maybe more than you would think.
Many experts used to think smoking rates would never sink below 20 percent because of dedicated hard-core smokers.
In 2004, 20 percent of American adults smoked, down from 24 percent in 1997.
The smoking rate hovered around that level through 2009, before starting to drop again, hitting 15 percent in 2015.
During those two decades, measures like those pushed by WHO were implemented.
Taxes were increased in many states, and smoking indoors in public buildings was gradually banned throughout most of the United States.
The first smoking ban was implemented on Jan. 1, 1998, in California.
“I think this bar ban going into force is the most important thing happening in tobacco in the country today,” Stanton Glantz, a University of California, San Francisco, professor known for his tobacco research, told The New York Times in 1997. “When this happens in the biggest, most diverse state in the country and the sky doesn't fall, it will spread across the country,” he said.
Looking for further reductions
Twenty years later, that message has spread across much of the world.
WHO’s goal is a 30 percent reduction from 2010 smoking rates by 2030. Prasad said that won’t be possible without governments implementing anti-tobacco policies at the highest level.
But with certain measures in place it could be possible to reduce tobacco use even further.
Michal Stoklosa, an economist at the American Cancer Society, noted that the WHO report stresses that tobacco taxes are one of the least implemented measures. And, he said, taxes have some unique qualities as far as bringing down smoking rates.
“Other measures, like a ban on marketing, are already there and you cannot improve on it. Whereas with a tobacco tax you can always increase the tax,” he told Healthline.
Stoklosa and his colleagues have played around with the 30 percent reduction target and found that it could be achieved through tobacco taxes alone, if they were increased sevenfold.
“But that’s not an unheard-of increase,” Stoklosa said, and it leaves out the effects of other measures.
“There would probably be a larger reduction if the taxes were increased even further,” he noted. “In most countries of the world this measure is really underutilized.”