Updated 02 January 2014

Tripling cigarette taxes could save 200 million lives

Tripling taxes on cigarettes around the world would reduce the number of smokers by one-third and prevent many premature deaths.

Tripling taxes on cigarettes around the world would reduce the number of smokers by one-third and prevent 200 million premature deaths from lung cancer and other diseases this century, according to a review published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Such a large tax increase would double the street price of cigarettes in some countries and narrow the price gap between the cheapest and most expensive cigarettes, which would encourage people to stop smoking rather than switch to a cheaper brand and help young people not to start.

Read: How cigarette taxes change drinking behaviour

This would be especially effective in low- and middle-income countries, where the cheapest cigarettes are relatively affordable and where smoking rates continue to rise, said Dr Prabhat Jha, director of the Centre for Global Health Research of St Michael's Hospital and a professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. But it would also be effective in rich countries, he said, noting that France halved cigarette consumption between 1990 and 2005 by raising taxes well above inflation.

Effective intervention

"Death and taxes are inevitable, but they don't need to be in that order," Dr Jha said. "A higher tax on tobacco is the single most effective intervention to lower smoking rates and to deter future smokers."

Countries around the world agreed at the United Nations General Assembly and the World Health Organisation's 2013 Assembly to decrease the prevalence of smoking by about one-third by 2025 to reduce premature deaths from cancer and other chronic diseases by 25%.

Tobacco causes about 200 000 deaths a year of people under 70 in Canada and the United States, 120 000 men and 80 000 women. Doubling cigarette prices would prevent about 70,000 of those deaths and provide new revenue that governments could spend on health care.

Read more about death from smoking:

•             Smoking deaths triple over decade

•             Smoking deaths in China could triple by 2030

Dr Jha said that even while higher tobacco taxes would reduce consumption, they would still generate an additional $100 billion a year for a total of $400 billion.

"Worldwide, around a half-billion children and adults under the age of 35 are already – or soon will be – smokers and on current patterns few will quit," said Professor Sir Richard Peto of the University of Oxford, the co-author.

"So there's an urgent need for governments to find ways to stop people starting and to help smokers give up. 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.”

“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."

Read: 5 ways to quit smoking

Marketing control

Controlling tobacco marketing is also key to helping people quit smoking. An independent review in the United Kingdom concluded that plain packaging would reduce the appeal of cigarettes, a switch that is expected before the next election. Australia changed to plain packaging in 2011, a measure New Zealand plans to follow.

Dr Jha and Sir Richard noted that the 21st-century hazards of smoking have been reliably documented only in the past year, when several researchers published papers showing that men and women who started smoking when they were young and continued throughout adulthood had two or three times the mortality rate of non-smokers.

An average of 10 years of life is lost through smoking. Many of those killed are still in middle age, meaning on average they lose about 20 years of life expectancy.

Both Dr Jha and Sir Richard published papers last year showing that people who quit smoking when they are young can regain almost all of the decade of life they might otherwise have lost.

Smokers in South Africa

With support from the South African Medical Research Council, the analysis of nearly half a million death records found the highest tobacco related mortality was in the coloured population group. In this group smoking causes one in four of all deaths in middle-aged men and one in six of all deaths in middle-aged women.

At ages 35-64 the excess risk of death among smokers was greater in the coloured than in the white population:

•             Men                      14-2%   vs.         7-6%

•             Women                11-0%   vs.         7-7%

The proportion of coloured vs. white people who had smoked at these ages was also much higher:

 •             Men                      68%       vs.         47%

•             Women                46%        vs.          28%

These findings imply that the death rate from smoking is more than twice as great in the coloured as in the white population.

The black African population already accounts for more than half of all deaths from smoking in South Africa, due to its larger size. 

At present, the death rate from smoking is not yet as high in the black African population as in the white or coloured population, but the researchers warn that this is likely to change if the large numbers of young black African adults who now smoke continue to do so.

Read: more on tobacco taxes

•             Tobacco taxes lower than bread

•             High tobacco tax curbs smoking

•             Pricey cigarettes cause fewer teens to smoke



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