The tobacco epidemic

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The tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced, with smoking remaining the number-one preventable cause of death worldwide. Currently, there are about 1.1 billion smokers worldwide – a seventh of the world’s population.

Every year, an estimated 7 million people die from tobacco-related diseases across the globe. Tobacco kills up to half of its users, while close to 900,000 of these deaths are non-smokers dying from second-hand smoke inhalation. Tobacco use costs the world more than $1 trillion in healthcare expenses and lost productivity every year.

Nearly 80% of the world’s 1.1 billion smokers live in low-and middle-income countries. In these countries, says the World Health Organization (WHO), the burden of illness and death is often the heaviest. Tobacco users who die prematurely deprive their families of income, raise the cost of health care, and hinder economic development.

Tobacco use in South Africa

Global estimates of tobacco use show that South Africa has a relatively low prevalence of smoking compared with the USA, Europe and Asia, but that we have a higher prevalence of smoking than neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe and Malawi.

It’s estimated that more than 44 000 South Africans die as a result of tobacco-related diseases every year. The harm done by tobacco products is devastating and is currently costing South African tax payers R59bn every year.

Since the introduction of tobacco control measures, national smoking prevalence has declined in South Africa. But, despite a national downward trend in smoking levels, tobacco use remains high in certain vulnerable communities.

How second-hand smoke harms

The use of tobacco by one or more adults has a negative impact on the health of children and other people living in the same household. 

In 2004, global estimates showed that 40% of children, 35% of non-smoking women, and 33% of non-smoking men were exposed to second-hand smoke. The number of deaths resulting from this exposure was estimated to be 603,000. A total of 28% (166,000) of these deaths were of children under the age of five.

In children, second-hand smoke has been linked to lower respiratory tract illnesses, middle-ear infections, chronic respiratory symptoms, asthma and reduced lung function. There’s also a link between second-hand smoke and childhood cancer.

Quit smoking today

Most of the world’s more than 1.1. billion smokers – about a quarter of all adults – are addicted. Are you one of them? If you’re ready to quit smoking and looking for help, call the National Council

Against Smoking’s QuitLine on 011 720 3145 or send a WhatsApp to 063 828 2909.

Reviewed by Cape Town-based general practitioner, Dr Dalia Hack. October 2018.

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