Cigarette tax could help 114 million people to leave smoking

A hefty cigarette tax could save up to 114 million lives over the next 50 years that would be lost to smoking, health experts said Wednesday. Smoking and tobacco use already kills an estimated 5 million people annually and could claim up to 1 billion lives this century, most of it in low-income nations, said Prabhat Jha, research chair of health and development at the University of Toronto at an international health conference in Beijing.

However, governments have the power to significantly curb usage by simply taxing tobacco products, he said. "Taxation is the most cost-effective intervention, but unfortunately, most underused" anti-smoking measure, he said. A 70 percent increase globally in cigarette prices could potentially avert between 46 million to 114 million smoking-related deaths, according to research by the Disease Control Priorities Project, an international partnership that organized the conference.

Even a more modest 33 percent increase could prevent some 66 million tobacco deaths over the next five decades, the DCPP study said. "Governments have to take tobacco seriously," Jha said. "The key message is that it is possible to avoid up to 3 million deaths a year." Studies have shown that even a 10 percent rise in the cost of cigarettes has a marked effect in reducing smoking in men and young people.

Countries can combine taxation with other interventions such as imposing a total ban on tobacco advertising, educating the public about the dangers of smoking, restricting smoking in public areas, and providing access to nicotine-replacement therapies, he said. Jha cited the United States and the United Kingdom as modern-day examples of countries that took aggressive steps and succeeded in cutting down tobacco usage.

During World War II , Britain had one of the worst lung cancer rates in the country. However the incidence of lung cancer in men aged 35-44 fell from 18 cases per 100,000 in 1950 to 4 cases per 100,000 in 2000, he said. For developing nations like China, curbing smoking will also have the added benefit of cutting down on a host of tobacco-related diseases, including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and lung disease all major causes of death here, said Dr. Runlin Gao, a cardiologist at Fu Wai Hospital.

Some 310 million people in China are smokers, which is a high-risk factor in cardiovascular disease, the number one killer world-wide, he said. "We are facing a big task in trying to beat cardiovascular disease," Gao said, noting that getting people to change their behavior is particularly difficult.

Tobacco-related deaths are the fastest-growing cause of death in low and middle-income countries on par with the HIV/AIDS. Smoking accounts for much of the disparity in the mortality gap between the rich and poor, with lower-income people more likely to die of tobacco-related disease, Jha said. The health benefits from getting current smokers to quit and preventing new smokers is enormous. However, countries must have the political will to tackle smoking and tobacco use, Jha said.

In China , it's clear the government does not take it seriously enough to make major changes, said Richard Leto, with Oxford University . "They perceive it as one of the main sources of revenue, and it is," he said, reports the AP.

N.U.