World Health Organization Backs Higher Cigarette Taxes
WHO’s Tobacco Control Guidelines
The WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control has been signed by 179 countries, motivated by the staggering worldwide death toll from smoking. In the U.S., smoking causes more deaths per year than HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, firearms and motor vehicle accidents combined. Although the guidelines leave it up to individual countries to set their own tax rates, the group previously suggested a rate of 70 percent of the retail price of cigarettes. The WHO updated the recommendation to account for differences in economic circumstances and in tax systems around the world, deciding not to suggest a “one-size-fits-all” strategy. They do suggest regularly increasing the price, however, to cope with inflation and increases in income for citizens.
How Tobacco Taxes Affect Smoking Rates
The WHO uses the example of South Africa to illustrate the effect of raising tobacco taxes on smoking rates. The increase in tax rates there led to a decrease in smoking overall, but particularly so in poor and young people. Graphing the tax rate against the number of packs of cigarettes sold shows a clear inverse relationship. In short, when taxes are lower, more people smoke, and when they’re higher, fewer people smoke. Additionally, those who continue to use tobacco generally consume less of it, ex-smokers are less likely to take the habit up again and young people are less likely to start smoking. According to the WHO, increasing tobacco taxes by 10 percent will decrease smoking rates by 4 percent in high-income countries, and the decrease is expected to be much bigger in middle- and low-income nations.
Increases in tobacco taxes particularly affect the poor and young people for obvious reasons: they have the least disposable income to spend on cigarettes. For poor people, this may encourage quitting and thereby give them more money to spend on essentials like food, rent, healthcare and education, as well as help them maximize their earnings thanks to the reduction in smoking-related illness and death.
Using the Money—Improving Support for Quitters
The WHO suggests that countries divert some of the revenue from these increased taxes to awareness-raising activities and strategies for helping more smokers quit. The focus on providing health and social programs with the revenue is one of the major potential benefits to the strategy. Rising prices may be effective in encouraging smokers to quit (studies have shown that financial incentives appear to improve quitting rates in drug addiction in general), but since addiction is really the problem—complete with the complex personal, emotional and psychological issues it entails—helping smokers get the support they need is crucial to reducing smoking rates. Most smokers want to quit, but relatively few of them access support and most are unsuccessful.
Although it’s widespread and legal, smoking is an addiction, just like one to drugs, alcohol or behaviors like gambling. To really address the issue, just like with other addictions, smokers need to understand why they smoke, learn to identify their triggers and cues to smoke and develop alternative coping mechanisms for unpleasant emotions. This, as anybody in treatment for addiction knows, is not an easy task. That’s why this strategy will be most effective if coupled with support during quitting—even if the high taxes drive them to stop or reduce smoking, if you don’t address the underlying issue, the same problem could rear its head again in a different form.
Motiving Smokers to Quit
As more developing countries take action, we may be seeing the beginning of the end of smoking. These actions don’t always come in the form of taxes (India, for example, recently approved warnings covering 85 percent of the surface of packs), but are all directed at one clear goal: motivating smokers to quit. The ultimate goal may be achievable, but only if all countries around the world realize the importance of offering support for quitting smoking. Without increased treatment, taxes will impact only the poor and frugal.