GENEVA - The World Health Organization warns that more than 7 million people die prematurely every year from tobacco-related causes, and it's a costly drain on national economies.
In advance of World No Tobacco day, to be observed Wednesday, the global health agency urged governments to implement strong tobacco control measures for the health of their people and their economies.
WHO calls tobacco a threat to development. Besides the heavy toll in lives lost, global estimates show that "tobacco costs the global economy $1.4 trillion a year," or 1.8 percent of global gross domestic product. The WHO notes this estimate takes into consideration "only medical expenses and lost productive capacities."
Despite effective tobacco control measures, WHO reports the number of people dying from smoking is increasing because those dying today have mostly been long-term smokers and it takes time for tobacco control policies to make an impact.
Vinayak Prasad, program manager of the WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative, told VOA, "What we are seeing is that if the policies were not in place, the number of 7.2 million would have been higher. We are seeing a reduction of tobacco use prevalence in most countries. The only regions now which are seeing higher growth are the African continent and Middle Eastern region. The rest of the world is seeing a decline."
Besides leading to premature death, the WHO has found, countless millions of people who smoke suffer from a wide variety of tobacco-related diseases and resultant serious disabilities, including blindness, amputation, impotence and poor oral health.
Andrew Black of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Secretariat noted that smoking is an addiction largely taken up in childhood and adolescence, "so it is crucial to reduce the number of young people taking up smoking in the first place. We must stop the tobacco industry's powerful advertising and promotion, which can all too often be oriented toward young people."
Black said tobacco widens social inequalities and is a driver of poverty around the world.
"We know that those living on lower incomes in virtually all countries are likely to smoke, and therefore more likely to suffer the consequences of tobacco use," he said.
Black said that by 2030, about 80 percent of the world's tobacco-related mortality will be in low- and middle-income countries.
"High rates of tobacco use being promoted by aggressive strategies from the tobacco industry are projected to lead to a doubling of the number of tobacco-related deaths in low- and middle-income countries between 2010 and 2030," he said.
To mark World No-Tobacco Day, the U.N. Development Program and the Secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control issued a study that focuses on the harmful effects of tobacco on both health and on efforts aimed at achieving the U.N.'s sustainable development goals (SDGs).
Dudley Tarlton, UNDP program specialist on health and development, told VOA that tobacco undermines the SDGs because "household consumption on tobacco displaces consumption on other goods and services that might lead to a better end.
"So, it affects poverty. It affects hunger. Education is affected. Children get ear infections because they are exposed to household smoke in the home," he said.
For the first time, the WHO and UNDP released a joint report showing the bad impact tobacco has on the environment.
Prasad acknowledged that the data received from the tobacco industry and from governments were relatively weak. Nevertheless, he said, "the evidence is really astounding as to how tobacco is extremely dangerous and harming the environment."
He said using land to grow tobacco "can lead to severe damage because of the widespread use of agrochemicals."
Use of trees
Prasad noted that more than 11 million metric tons of wood was required to cure and dry tobacco, "which essentially means deforestation is already happening."
The report found that tobacco waste contains over 7,000 toxic chemicals that poison the environment, including human carcinogens, and that tobacco smoke contributes "thousands of tons of human carcinogens, toxicants and greenhouse gases to the environment."
Prasad said that cigarettes are bad news for tree lovers because "for every 300 cigarettes, we need to cut a tree. ... Even conservatively, if we are looking at 6 trillion cigarettes, we are looking at almost 15 to 20 billion trees to cut.
"We have 6 trillion trees in the world, so we are almost looking at a big cut, which is going to happen, if we do not hold this," he said.
And regarding the sullying of the world's environment, he noted that cigarette butts "account for 30 to 40 percent of all items collected in coastal and urban cleanups."