By Amir Khan
Policies put in place around the world in recent years to cut tobacco use -- notably tobacco tax hikes -- will save 7 million lives by the year 2050, according to a study published today by the World Health Organization. But the U.S. has held off on nationwide policy changes in regards to cigarettes, leading some experts to call for a large, nationwide tax increase to reduce the rate of smoking in the country.
Researchers projected the likely impact of various policies that countries around the world adopted from 2007 to 2010 to cut smoking rates, including large tobacco tax hikes, near total bans on tobacco advertising, and nationwide programs to help smokers quit. The bottom line: In the countries where one or more of the policies were implemented, 7.4 million premature deaths will be prevented by 2050.
"It's a spectacular finding that by implementing these simple tobacco control policies, governments can save so many lives," lead author David Levy, PhD, a professor of oncology at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, said in a statement. "In addition to some 7.4 million lives saved, the tobacco control policies we examined can lead to other health benefits such as fewer adverse birth outcomes related to maternal smoking, including low birth weight, and reduced health-care costs and less loss of productivity due to less smoking-related disease."
Forty one countries have implemented one or more of the policies designed to limit smoking in recent years, but not the United States, which has a partial tobacco advertising ban nationwide, but leaves taxation to the states..
"The United States is one of the few countries that has not signed on to implement any of these policies," said Andrew Hyland, PhD, chair of the department of health behavior at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. "The US houses one of the world's largest tobacco manufacturers, and sometimes more than health issues play a role in signing these agreements."
Many government officials in the U.S. are weary of implementing these policies over fear of failing to be reelected, says Dan Ehlke, PhD, assistant professor of health policy and management at SUNY Downstate Medical Center School of Public Health in New York City.
"High taxes on tobacco consumption appears to have had the greatest impact in saving lives," he said. "Tax hikes in the U.S., however, spell political doom for any who would propose them. I think that's one of the key impediments to implementing these sorts of policies."
However, the reluctance of the United States to enact nationwide tax hikes has not stopped some states from adding taxes at the local level. The tax hike enacted in the countries studied by WHO was 75 percent of the cost of a pack. That's the rate charged in New York State, which has the highest cigarette tax in the U.S. Rhode Island was next highest, with a tax of about 60 percent, but from there the U.S. rates dropped sharply, with Virginia the least, two percent.
"Individual states have taken steps, such as implementing higher taxes and quitting measures," Dr. Hyland said. "These are steps in the right direction, but more could be done if the US implemented a national campaign to tackle the number one health issue in the country - smoking."
The tobacco control policies outlined in the study also include added warnings on cigarette packaging, which Dr. Ehlke said lobbyists ensure won't be added in the United States.
"American courts have struck down some more severe health warnings when it comes to tobacco products," he said. "That, in turn, is the result of the protections our legal system generally affords business, sometimes at the expense of public health."
The United States does have a ban on some smoking advertisements, but it is not as strict as the policies outlined by the World Health Organization. Cigarette advertisements are banned on television and radio, but exist on billboards and in magazines. Of the countries that have agreed to the World Health Organization's policies, on the other hand, five have banned all tobacco advertisements, while others have enacted bans similar to the United States.
"A few years ago, researchers thought that in the 21st century, 1 billion people would die from a tobacco-attributable disease," Hyland said. "But now, we've got this report showing that we can make significant gains."
It's important, he added, to ensure that law makers do not become complacent with the progress made so far.
"If I'm a policy maker, I can use this study as evidence to show that we made a good start," Hyland said, "but we really can be doing so much more."
"Smoking Policies Will Save Millions of Lives Worldwide, but U.S. Could Do More" originally appeared on Everyday Health.