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WHO: High Tobacco Taxes Can Save Millions of Lives

  • Lisa Schlein

Activists dressed as skeletons participate in an awareness campaign on World No Tobacco Day in Kolkata, india, May 31, 2014.

Activists dressed as skeletons participate in an awareness campaign on World No Tobacco Day in Kolkata, india, May 31, 2014.

To mark World No Tobacco Day, the World Health Organization is calling on governments to raise taxes on tobacco. WHO says this is the most effective way to reduce smoking and prevent the premature death of millions of people.

Tobacco use is the world’s leading preventable cause of death. The World Health Organization reports tobacco kills nearly eight million people a year. This includes more than 600,000 non-smokers who are dying from breathing in other peoples’ smoke.

WHO warns tobacco will cause the deaths of about one billion people by the end of this century, if no action is taken. It says 80 percent of these deaths will occur in low- and middle-income countries.

The U.N. health agency says most of these premature deaths can be prevented through measures that discourage people from taking up smoking and encourage them to stop. It says the most effective way of doing this is by imposing high taxes on a pack of cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Coordinator of WHO’s Tobacco Control Economics Unit, Ayda Yureki, says evidence shows that raising taxes not only saves lives, but generates significant revenue for governments.

“So, these are the win-win policies for public health and the economy. According to WHO, a global 50 percent increase in taxes on cigarettes would lead to 49 million fewer smokers and save 11 million lives," said Yureki. "One of WHO’s highest priorities in tobacco control is to prevent young people from starting to use tobacco. And, such tax increases can prevent 11 million young people from becoming smokers.”

Yureki says this is especially important for developing countries with large and growing young populations. She notes poor countries are especially in need of healthy young people to boost their development. They also can use the money generated from tobacco taxes to improve their economies.

The World Health Organization calculates governments around the world would earn an extra $101 billion in revenue if all countries increased tobacco taxes by 50 percent per pack.

An example of how this works can be seen in South Africa. That country increased taxes on cigarettes from 32 percent to 52 percent between 1993-2009. During this period, WHO notes cigarette sales went down 30 percent and government revenue went up from nearly $1 billion to more than $8 billion (one billion Rand to nine billion Rand).

While tax hikes may be good for the public and governments, it is bad news for the tobacco industry. Program Manager for the Prevention of Non-communicable Diseases at WHO, Armando Peruga tells VOA the industry is worried that increased taxes will result in lost sales.

“In order to avoid that, they use different tactics; such as, for example, try to press on the government the false idea that the tobacco industry will have to leave the country, with loss of revenue for the country," he said. "And, they will say they will lose employment and also they will use some tactics that are not so legal in trying to convince Parliamentarians to vote against increase of taxes.”

The World Health Organization cites tax increases as the most effective among a number of tobacco control measures. Other measures include the establishment of smoke-free environments, health warnings on cigarette packages, and a ban on all forms of advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products.

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