Smoking rates fall after health pact: WHO

Sharpest drop seen in nations that enforced treaty, implying anti-tobacco policies work

PARIS • Tobacco use fell by 2.5 percentage points worldwide a decade after the first global health treaty went into effect, World Health Organisation (WHO) researchers said yesterday.

Smoking rates declined most sharply when countries implemented several of the measures called for in the 2005 pact, and rose in some nations that failed to do so, suggesting anti-tobacco policies make a real difference, they reported in Lancet, a medical journal.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control's 180 parties, including Singapore, agreed to introduce or boost tobacco taxes, smoke-free zones, warning labels, advertising bans, and programmes to help people kick the nicotine habit.

The study, based on data from 126 nations, showed that the treaty "has been a success in reducing tobacco use in countries that engaged in strong implementation", said co-author Geoffrey Fong, a professor at the University of Waterloo.

Tobacco consumption is the single greatest preventable cause of death in the world, claiming nearly six million lives annually. Smoking also racks up more than a trillion dollars annually in healthcare and lost productivity costs.

Nations adopting aggressive campaigns against tobacco included Panama and Nepal, both of which opted for a complete smoke-free policy coupled with broad bans on advertising and sponsorship. More recently, Nepal also introduced the world's largest warnings, which take up 90 per cent of the front and back of each pack of cigarettes.

On average, smoking rates across the 126 nations dropped from 24.7 to 22.2 per cent over the decade examined.

But trends varied widely across regions: Smoking decreased in 90 countries, stayed the same in 12, and increased in 24.

The findings "give tobacco activists an empirical argument with which to prod their governments into living up to their treaty obligations", Dr Kenneth Warner, professor at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health, was quoted as saying by the Agence France-Presse news agency.

Early research leaves little doubt that higher taxation is most effective in discouraging smokers, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Graphic warnings on packages are thought to be among the least persuasive policies.

The most frequently implemented measure was smoke-free public places, adopted by 28 per cent of the 126 nations.

The least frequently adopted policy - present in only 13 per cent of the countries - was a ban on advertising, which is thought to reduce the number of people who start smoking in the first place.

Nations adopting aggressive campaigns against tobacco included Panama and Nepal, both of which opted for a complete smoke-free policy coupled with broad bans on advertising and sponsorship. More recently, Nepal also introduced the world's largest warnings, which take up 90 per cent of the front and back of each pack of cigarettes.

Singapore, which has adopted a tough anti-smoking policy for years, is now moving to curb the habit among the young.

The Health Ministry announced earlier this month that it planned to introduce legislation to raise the minimum legal age for smoking from 18 to 21.

Raising the age limit directly targets the worrying fact that most smokers make it a habit before they hit 21. Studies have shown that those who start young find it hard to quit later in life.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2017, with the headline 'Smoking rates fall after health pact: WHO'. Print Edition | Subscribe