War against tobacco hasn’t been won yet

A man holds a Capstan cigarette, which is the brand of Pakistan Tobacco Company, as he exhales smoke in Karachi, Pakistan April 6, 2018. Picture taken April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

The world can draw some satisfaction from the fact that smoking of tobacco is declining. According to the World Health Organisation’s Global Report on Trends in Prevalence of Tobacco Smoking 2000-2025, 27% of the world’s population smoked tobacco in 2000. That figure fell to 20% in 2016. However, the number of people smoking tobacco is not falling fast enough. The international community had pledged to reduce tobacco use by 30% by 2025 among people aged 15 and older. If the current trend continues, the world is likely to reduce tobacco use only by 22% by that date. In India, the prevalence of smoking tobacco has fallen from 19.4% to 11.5% between 2000 and 2015. On the face of it, this decline is heartening. However, the figures do not capture the severity of the tobacco use problem in India, as most people here chew tobacco rather than smoke it. More than 75% of tobacco users in India chew tobacco. Indeed, India is the second largest consumer of tobacco products in the world, with 28.6% of our population addicted to it in some form. Tobacco consumption in any form is dangerous. Its link to lung and oral cancer is well established. But there is a strong link between tobacco use and cardiovascular diseases (CVD), too, but awareness about this is low. CVDs are the leading causes of death, responsible for 17.9 million deaths annually. Second-hand smoke is deadly, too, and contributes to three million deaths a year worldwide.

Some 80% of all the world’s smokers of tobacco are in low and middle-income countries. A significant proportion (7%) of youngsters in their early teens (13-25 years) is smoking tobacco, while 4% in this age-group use smokeless tobacco products. The figures in the WHO report provide useful pointers to the strategies governments need to adopt. It is not so much poverty as it is lack of public awareness of the deadly implications of tobacco use that underlies the large number of tobacco users in the low and middle-income countries. Governments of advanced countries are spending more on spreading awareness about tobacco products. It is therefore imperative that India spends more on creating public awareness about smoking. This is worth the investment as it will contribute to reduction in cancers and CVDs and thus reduce the loss of man-hours, lives and expenditure on health problems.

Additionally, India needs to focus on smoking among youngsters. Teenagers, and increasingly pre-teens are taking to smoking because of peer pressure. They think it is ‘cool’ to smoke. Girls are taking to smoking to signal rebellion. Public awareness campaigns should underscore that smoking tobacco is plain stupid, not stylish.

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War against tobacco hasn’t been won yet

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