While rates of smoking among men have fallen fast in developed countries like the UK, the USA, France, and Germany, the same is not true of the rest of the world. The rate of uptake in developing countries continued unabated over the last twenty years, due to rising incomes, growing populations, and increased city migration.
That state of affairs, however, could be changing, at least according to a massive data collection effort from the World Health Organization. The international agency set up to promote global health and wellbeing found that 2019 was the first year since the millennium in which the number of men smoking fell.
The global smoking epidemic is mainly a male issue — data from the WHO suggests that there were 1.34 billion smokers across the globe in 2019. Eight in 10 smokers are male, making up 1.093 billion of the total figure.
The number of male tobacco smokers worldwide, however, has risen much more slowly than the total population. In 2000, 1.05 billion men smoked; 43 million lower than it is today. The world’s population, however, rose by nearly 1,500 million people over the same period. The fact that the number is now falling, therefore, suggest that we’ve turned a corner. Despite the growing number of people living today, the proportion of smokers is going down.
For many, these changes don’t come soon enough. The World Health Organization estimates that tobacco usage leads to around eight million premature deaths per year. Most of those are among the people who smoke, but some result from second-hand exposure.
Smoking releases dozens of toxic compounds into the atmosphere, like arsenic, formaldehyde, and lead believed to result in a range of diseases like lung cancer, heart disease, and COPD. The burden of these diseases is felt most strongly by the world’s poorest people who don’t have as much access to healthcare.
The facts about smoking can sometimes be a little hazy. Here are some things that you should know:
- WHO analysis suggests that around half of all smokers will die for reasons related to their habit
- The majority of smoking protection laws apply mainly in the developed world – only 20 percent of the global population. In other countries, tobacco companies are free to advertise their products how they like.
- Around 5.6 million children alive today in the US will die because of smoking-related causes
- The cost of tobacco to the US economy alone is estimated at more than $300 billion. Around half of this figure is the effect due to lost productivity, and the rest is the direct cost of medical care.
- You can find all manner of harmful chemicals in tobacco products, including radioactive heavy metals, such as polonium.
- The benzene in tobacco is one of the leading causes of cancer called myeloid leukemia. In countries with high levels of environmental protections, like the US, 90 percent of benzene exposure comes from tobacco products.
- Data suggest that there are more than 4,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke. Researchers believe that more than 250 of them are harmful to health, and eleven are classified as class 1 carcinogens, putting them in the same category as processed meat.
- China is home to the world’s largest population of smokers, with more than 300 million people lighting up regularly. The country consumes a staggering 1.7 trillion cigarettes per year.
- Medical research suggests that just five cigarettes contain enough nicotine to kill an adult if eaten whole. The amount of nicotine that a smoker actually ingests is usually about 0.03 milligrams per cigarette.
- While smoking is famous for causing lung cancer, it is not the only malignancy that researchers have linked to the habit. Smoking can also raise your risk of liver, mouth, throat, pancreatic, and rectal cancers.
- Smoking hits the world’s poorest people the hardest. Eighty percent of smokers worldwide live in developing or emerging market countries.
- Smoking cuts life expectancy by an average of around 13 years. If you smoke and also have HIV, then it reduces your life short by a staggering 16 years.
- The CDC estimates that there are around 37.8 million people who smoke in the United States.
- Data indicate that one person dies from smoking-related diseases every five seconds globally.
While the costs of smoking are startling on a global scale, we’re seeing a dramatic decline in the proportion of people engaging in the habit. As information flows out about the health risks of taking up smoking, increasing numbers of people are looking for alternatives or quitting altogether.
The latest trend is towards non-tobacco products that do not contain the hundreds of carcinogenic compounds found in regular cigarettes. The rising popularity of vape shop outlets is a testament to these changing habits. A combination of public health action and private innovation, therefore, may be what eventually leads to the demise of the tobacco industry.
Is the writing on the wall that smoking will cease to play a significant role in human health in the future? The answer is “probably.” As economies like China and India become wealthier, the demand for health will increase. These countries will experience a transition in attitudes, away from the notion that life is nasty, brutish, and short and more towards a western conception. People will likely actively invest in their health, looking for opportunities to stay younger and live longer. Wellness may become a dominant trend in these countries as they industrialize, just like it has in the developed world.
While the number of people smoking globally has fallen, the WHO is still skeptical of whether it will meet its reduction targets. The agency wants to see the number of people smoking worldwide fall by 30 percent in those aged fifteen and over by the end of the 2020 reporting year. The agency knows, though, that unless countries with large populations begin robust national programs, it won’t achieve its goals.
The tide, however, turned long ago in developed countries, and the same is now happening on the global stage. Tobacco’s days could be numbered.