WHO Calls For Higher Taxes On Tobacco Products To Save Lives
May 30, 2014

WHO Calls For Higher Taxes On Tobacco Products To Save Lives

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Ahead of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) conference, which is slated for later this year, the UN’s health arm is using World No Tobacco Day to call on countries to raise taxes on tobacco products.

The tobacco epidemic results in six million deaths annually across the globe, of which more than 600,000 are non-smokers who die from breathing in the toxic second-hand smoke of cigarette users. Unless we act now, the epidemic will kill more than eight million people each year by 2030. Furthermore, more than 80 percent of these preventable deaths will occur in low- and middle-income countries, according to WHO data.

WHO’s FCTC maintains that countries should implement tax and price policies on tobacco products as a way to reduce tobacco use. Previous research has shown that higher taxes are effective in reducing tobacco use among lower-income groups and in preventing people from picking up the habit to begin with.

Increasing taxes on tobacco prices by just 10 percent decreases tobacco consumption by about four percent in high-income countries and by up to eight percent in low- and middle-income countries, according to WHO. Furthermore, increasing excise taxes on tobacco would be the most cost-effective tobacco control measure.

The World Health Report 2010 determined that a 50 percent increase in tobacco excise taxes would generate more than $1.4 billion (US) in additional funds in 22 low-income countries. If those funds were allocated to the health sector, government health spending in these countries could increase by as much as 50 percent.

WHO is not only looking to raise taxes on tobacco products, but is also championing the change of view on electronic cigarettes.

In an earlier report, WHO director-general Margaret Chan told an FCTC committee hearing that electronic cigarettes should be considered the same a regular tobacco products, stating they are no less dangerous than traditional cigarettes. The goal of that proposal is also to raise taxes on e-cigarettes and SNUs.

However, a leaked document from that hearing made its way into public eyes and subsequently a group of 53 leading scientists from around the world sent a signed letter to Chan, asking her and her agency to not classify electronic cigarettes the same as regular ones as these products are part of the solution to reducing death and disease, rather than part of the problem.

Currently, WHO and FCTC do not differentiate between the risks of different nicotine products. By applying FCTC measures to e-cigarettes, they would fall under the same category as tobacco products and likely result in advertising bans, smoke-free legislation and higher taxes and health warnings, reducing their use as a safer alternative to cigarettes.

“If the WHO gets its way and extinguishes e-cigarettes, it will not only have passed up what is clearly one of the biggest public health innovations of the last three decades that could potentially save millions of lives, but it will have abrogated its own responsibility under its own charter to empower consumers to take control of their own health, something which they are already doing themselves in their millions,” Professor Gerry Stimson, Emeritus Professor at the Imperial College in London, a signatory to the letter, and organizer of the upcoming Global Forum on Nicotine, said in statement.

The group of signatories said in that letter to Chan that electronic cigarettes could help prevent much of the cancer, heart and lung disease and strokes caused by the toxins found in traditional cigarettes. These e-cigarettes “could be among the most significant health innovations of the 21st century, perhaps saving hundreds of millions of lives," the group said, according to AFP.

A recent study of nearly 6,000 people who quit smoking in England between 2009 and 2014 found they were 60 times more likely to succeed using e-cigarettes than using nicotine patches or gum, or even going cold turkey.

However, another study published in JAMA in March said that e-cigarettes “did not significantly predict quitting one year later.”

In the US, legislation has already worked its magic against electronic smokers, adding health warning labels and enforcing minimum age limits on the next-gen nicotine sticks. Even New York banned them from restaurants, bars, parks, beaches, and other public places.

Perhaps causing another setback for e-cigarettes is a recent finding that e-cigarette smokers provide a visual stimulant to other traditional smokers, giving them the urge to smoke as well.

That study found that in a controlled setting those who observe e-cigarette use have an increased urge to light up their own traditional cigarettes, revealing that the elevated desire to smoke is just as intense when observing e-cigarette use as when observing combustible cigarette use.

“E-cigarette use has increased dramatically over the past few years, so observations and passive exposure will no doubt increase as well,” said Andrea King, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, in a recent statement. “It’s important to note that there could be effects of being in the company of an e-cigarette user, particularly for young smokers. For example, it’s possible that seeing e-cigarette use may promote more smoking behavior and less quitting.”

It will be studies like this one that may give electronic cigarettes a bad reputation, and spoil efforts by scientists, doctors and other health officials trying to tout their use as a life saver rather than a killer.

Such explanations will unlikely gain traction as WHO and FCTC continue to champion the demise of e-cigarettes. And with World No Tobacco Day around the corner – May 31 – the UN health body will likely not waver from its stance anytime soon.

“The ultimate goal of World No Tobacco Day is to contribute to protecting present and future generations not only from the devastating health consequences due to tobacco, but also from the social, environmental and economic scourges of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke,” WHO wrote in a statement.

The specific goals of the 2014 campaign are that governments increase taxes on tobacco to reduce its consumption and for individuals and civil society organizations to encourage governments to increase taxes on tobacco products.

“Every year, on 31 May, WHO and partners everywhere mark World No Tobacco Day, highlighting the health risks associated with tobacco use and advocating for effective policies to reduce tobacco consumption. Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death globally and is currently responsible for 10 percent of adult deaths worldwide,” the WHO statement concluded.