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Too few governments using tax in tobacco control strategies, says WHO

This is despite it being an inexpensive and highly effective measure to curb demand

Caroline White

Tuesday, 07 July 2015

Too few governments around the world are using tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products as part of their tobacco control strategy, concludes the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) report on tobacco published today.

This is despite the fact that a tax levy is a low cost and effective measure to curb demand, says WHO.

Thirty three countries impose taxes that represent more than 75% of the retail price of a packet of cigarettes, but many countries have extremely low tax rates on tobacco products, and some have none at all.

“Raising taxes on tobacco products is one of the most effective – and cost-effective – ways to reduce consumption of products that kill, while also generating substantial revenue,” says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director General.

“I encourage all governments to look at the evidence, not the industry’s arguments, and adopt one of the best win-win policy options available for health,” she adds.

Strategies to support the implementation of demand reduction measures contained within the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), such as the “MPOWER” package, have helped save millions of lives in the past decade.

MPOWER was set up in 2008 to promote government action on six tobacco control strategies—1 for each letter of the MPOWER acronym—to stamp out smoking.

  • Monitor tobacco use and prevention policies
  • Protect people from tobacco smoke
  • Offer help to quit tobacco use
  • Warn people about the dangers of tobacco
  • Enforce bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship; and
  • Raise taxes on tobacco

Around 2.8 billion people are now covered by at least one MPOWER measure at the highest level of achievement. But with populations around the world ageing and non-communicable diseases on the rise, tackling a huge and entirely preventable cause of disease and death becomes all the more imperative, says WHO.

The report shows that tax hikes on tobacco products is the least implemented MPOWER measure in terms of population coverage, and the one that has seen the least improvement in terms of government action since 2008.

By 2014, 11 further countries had raised taxes to represent more than 75% of the retail price of a packet of cigarettes, joining the 22 that had similarly high taxes in place in 2008.

Dr Douglas Bettcher, Director of WHO’s Department for the Prevention of Non communicable Diseases (NCDs), says higher tobacco taxes and prices are proven methods to reduce consumption and promote quitting.

“Evidence from countries such as China and France shows that higher tobacco product prices linked to increased taxes lead to declines in smoking prevalence and tobacco-related harm, such as lung cancer deaths,” he insists.

Dr Vera da Costa e Silva, Head of the WHO FCTC Secretariat, notes that the Convention offers governments policies to curb illicit trade in tobacco products to reduce demand and boost tax revenues from tobacco sales.

“Countries should consider implementing the provisions of the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products to confront the illegal market,” she adds.

Tobacco taxation could also be a key source of funding for implementing the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

One person dies from a tobacco-related disease every 6 seconds, equivalent to around 6 million people a year. That is forecast to rise to more than 8 million people a year by 2030, unless strong measures are taken to control the epidemic, says WHO.

Tobacco use is also one of the four main risk factors behind the global epidemic of non-communicable diseases, primarily cancers, cardiovascular and lung disease, and diabetes. In 2012, these diseases killed 16 million people prematurely (before the age of 70 years), with more than 80% occurring in low- and middle-income countries.

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