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WHO: Tobacco Use Kills 5 Million People a Year - 2004-05-31

The World Health Organization says tobacco use kills almost 5 million people a year, and it expects this toll to double in the next 20 years. In marking its annual World No-Tobacco Day, WHO is focusing on the link between tobacco consumption and poverty.

The World Health Organization reports that around the world, one person dies every six-and-one-half seconds from a tobacco-related disease. It says most of these deaths occur in developing countries, where 84 percent of smokers live.

Catherine Le Gales-Camus, the head of WHO's non-communicable diseases and mental health division, says regional studies show people with low income and little education tend to smoke the most.

?This means that they will be the ones most likely to suffer the worst consequences. This, in turn, makes it more difficult for them to improve their economic situation,? Ms. Le Gales-Camus said.

At current rates, WHO says, it expects the total number of tobacco users to rise to 1.7 billion by 2025 from 1.3 billion now.

It says studies show tobacco use also can damage countries' economies, because of the increase in health care costs that it causes.

For example, WHO says, Egypt spends more than half a billion dollars a year in treating tobacco-related diseases. The World Bank estimates wealthy countries spend as much as 15 percent of their health budgets on such illnesses.

The WHO's coordinator of the Free Tobacco Initiative, Douglas Bettcher, says data from many countries show poorer people spend a bigger part of their household income on tobacco products. That leaves them with less money to pay for other basic needs, such as food, health care and education.

?In Bangladesh, over 10.5 million people currently malnourished in the country could have an adequate diet, if money spent on tobacco was spent on food instead. A very, very concerning finding,? Dr. Bettcher said. ?The poorest households in Bangladesh spent almost 10 times as much on tobacco as on education in tobacco-consuming households. In Niger, about 40 percent of the resources, money of manual laborers and students, is spent on cigarettes. In Egypt, 10 percent of household expenditures went toward cigarettes.?

Dr. Bettcher says one of the most effective ways of reducing demand for tobacco is to raise prices and taxes on cigarettes and other products. He says studies show a significant drop in tobacco consumption when taxes are raised by at least 70 percent on a pack of cigarettes.