UN says ‘tobacco epidemic’ could kill 1 billion people in 21st century

By Edith M. Lederer

NEW YORK – The World Health Organization warned in a new report Thursday that the “tobacco epidemic” is growing and could claim 1 billion lives by the end of the century unless governments dramatically step up efforts to curb smoking.

In its first comprehensive report on tobacco use in 179 countries, the U.N.s health agency said governments around the world collect more than $200 billion in tobacco taxes every year but spend less than one-fifth of 1 percent of that revenue on tobacco control, it said.

“We hold in our hands the solution to the global tobacco epidemic that threatens the lives of 1 billion men, women and children during this century,” WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said in an introduction to the report.

The WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic 2008 calls on all countries to dramatically increase efforts to prevent young people from beginning to smoke, help smokers quit and protect nonsmokers from exposure to second hand smoke.

It urges governments to adopt six “tobacco control policies” – raise taxes and prices of tobacco; ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship; protect people from second hand smoke; warn people about the dangers of tobacco; help those who want to quit smoking; and monitor tobacco use to understand and reverse the epidemic.

Chan announced the report Thursday at a news conference with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, helped fund it with a $2 million grant. The report examines the tobacco policies of 179 countries for the first time, Bloomberg said.

According to the report, nearly two-thirds of the world’s smokers live in 10 countries: China, which accounts for nearly 30 percent, India with about 10 percent, Indonesia, Russia, the United States, Japan, Brazil, Bangladesh, Germany and Turkey.

It forecast that more than 80 percent of tobacco-related deaths will be in low- and middle-income countries by 2030.

Dr. Douglas Bettcher, director of WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative, said WHO estimates 5.4 million smoking-related deaths a year, rising to more than 8 million a year by 2030 if nothing is done. That adds up to 175 million between 2005 and 2030. Beyond that, he said, deaths will continue to rise and statistical projections put the death toll at near 1 billion by the end of the century.

Tobacco use is growing fastest in low-income countries, the report said, “due to steady population growth coupled with tobacco industry targeting, ensuring that millions of people become fatally addicted each year.”

It warned that “the shift of the tobacco epidemic to the developing world will lead to unprecedented levels of disease and early death in countries where population growth and the potential for increased tobacco use are highest and where health care services are least available.”

According to the report, 74 countries still allow smoking in health care institutions and about the same number allow smoking in schools. More than half the countries, with two-thirds of the world’s population, allow smoking in government offices and workplaces, and only 20 of 179 countries have complete bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

“The tobacco epidemic is growing – it is shifting toward developing countries, with tobacco use growing fastest in low-income countries,” Chan said.

For the tobacco industry to survive, and keep existing customers hooked and attract new customers, “it spends tens of billions of dollars a year on advertising, promotion and sponsorship,” WHO said.

Michael Pfeil, vice president for communications for Lausanne, Switzerland-based Philip Morris International, said the company advocates “for tough, fair, cohesive regulation of the industry” and believes many countries need to do more. The company has operations in 160 countries.

He said regulations Philip Morris supports mirror some core provisions of the U.N. anti-smoking treaty that came into force last year. These include mandatory health warnings, restrictions on advertising including bans in some media, and minimum age laws for smoking, he said.

“We’re going to continue to spend money,” Pfeil said in a telephone interview. “I think we have a duty as a commercial entity to continue to grow our business, but … our interest is in marketing to adult smokers who are smoking competitive products.”

David Howard, spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, the second-largest cigarette manufacturer in the U.S., said the company is responsible in its advertising and warns consumers of the risk of smoking.

“The best course of action for any tobacco consumer concerned about their health is to quit,” he said.

Associated Press Writer Erin Gartner in Raleigh, N.C. contributed to this report.