Tobacco snuffing out Indians

India’s average life expectancy went up from 37 years in 1947 to 64.7 years in 2007. This is accepted as one of the country’s biggest accomplishments in the last 60 years.
But cigarettes can change this situation altogether. “If the present level of cigarette prevalence increases by 10 per cent, average life expectancy of urban males (smokers and non-smokers combined) will drop by one year,” said Prabhat Jha, a public health researcher at the University of Toronto.

Smoking kills almost 10 lakh Indians every year. Approximately, one in every 10 deaths can be attributed to tobacco. Jha, who is tracking the tobacco consumption patterns and deaths in India for the past several years, said the risks of smoking in India are bigger than previously thought and occur at younger ages than the US or UK.

Smoking prevalence in urban males in India rose from 13 per cent in 1999 to 25 per cent in 2006. Most of them use cigarettes. Such high level of smoking prevalence will lead to more deaths, which in turn would be linked to the average life expectancy. “Overall life expectancy of urban males will drop by one year, unless smokers quit,” Jha said in a new study on tobacco taxation. This may eventually happen despite the anti-tobacco act, intended for discouraging people from smoking and chewing tobacco, but poorly implemented.

Without strong action from the government to discourage smoking, more than 51 million Indians alive today – 38.4 million beedi smokers and 13.2 million cigarette smokers – will die prematurely. Most deaths will occur in the productive age group of 30-69.
Quitting smoking before the disease strikes is effective in avoiding deaths. But the study found that quitting is rare in India. Only two per cent Indian adults are ex-smokers as against 40 per cent in the US and UK and 15 per cent in Thailand. In India, quitting rate is the best in Kerala with 7.4 per cent. In Karnataka, the rate is 2 per cent whereas in Andhra Pradesh it is 1.8 per cent, Jha said. The new taxation study advocates very high tax. Ideally it should be more than the 17 per cent higher excise tax, which Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee proposed in the Budget. He increased the street prices by a mere 6 per cent.

“Taxes are the single most effective intervention to get current smokers to quit,” said M Govind Rao from National Institute of Public Finances and Policy, a co-author of the study.

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