Researchers recommend global punitive tobacco tax to cut deaths

2014-01-02 10:43

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London – Trebling tobacco tax globally will cut smoking by a third and prevent 200 million premature deaths this century from lung cancer and other diseases, say researchers.

In a review in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists from the charity, Cancer Research UK (Cruk), said yesterday that a hefty hike in taxes per cigarette will encourage people to quit smoking altogether rather than switch to cheaper brands. This will also help stop young people from taking up the habit.

Besides causing lung cancer, which is often fatal, smoking is the largest cause of premature death from chronic conditions like heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), tobacco now kills about 6 million people a year. That number is expected to rise above 8 million annually by 2030 if nothing is done to curb smoking rates.

Richard Peto, a Cruk epidemiologist who led the study, said aggressively increasing tobacco taxes would be especially effective in poorer and middle-income countries where the cheapest cigarettes are relatively affordable.

Of the 1.3 billion people around the world who smoke, most live in poorer countries where governments often have not yet introduced smoke-free legislation.

But increasing tobacco tax would also be effective in richer countries, Peto said. He cited evidence from France where he said cigarette consumption from 1990 to 2005 was halved by raising taxes well above inflation.

“The two certainties in life are death and taxes. We want higher tobacco taxes and fewer tobacco deaths. It will help children not to start and it will help many adults to stop while there’s still time,” he said.

While smokers lose at least 10 years of their lives, quitting before the age of 40 avoids more than 90% of the increased health risk run by people who continue smoking. Stopping before the age of 30 avoids more than 97% of the risk.

Governments around the world have agreed to prioritise reducing premature deaths from cancer and other chronic diseases in the UN General Assembly and in the WHO’s World Health Assembly in 2013. They also agreed to a target of reducing smoking by a third by 2025.

The Cruk analysis found that doubling the price of cigarettes in the next decade through increased taxes will cut worldwide consumption by about a third by that target and, at the same time, increase annual government revenues from tobacco by a third from about $300 billion-$400 billion (R3.1 trillion-R4.1 trillion).

The researchers suggested that this extra income could be spent on boosting healthcare budgets.

Peto noted that the international tobacco industry makes about $50 billion in profits each year. He said this equates to “approximately $10 000 per death from smoking”.

Cruk’s chief executive Harpal Kumar said: “Worldwide, about half a billion children and adults under the age of 35 are already – or soon will be – smokers and many will be hooked on tobacco for life. So there’s an urgent need for governments to find ways to stop people starting and to help smokers give up.”

He said the study, which examined 63 research papers on the causes and consequences of tobacco use in many different countries, showed that tobacco taxes were “a hugely powerful lever”.

Kumar said they are also potentially a triple win by cutting the number of people who smoke and die from their addiction, reducing the healthcare burden and costs linked to smoking while increasing government income.

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