War, Famine, Pestilence and Tobacco

The fifth horseman of apocalypse

What price do you put on a human life? If you were an executive at Philip Morris it might be about $2,730. At least if we’re talking profit and loss.  That is how much profit tobacco companies made last year for each life lost to tobacco related diseases. Globally last year’s tobacco revenues were $107.8 billion and on that tobacco companies made about $14.6 billion in profit. Not bad going for an industry that kills its own consumers.

The World Health Organisation estimate that tobacco kills upto 50% of its users. And when you add up quite how many users there are, they’re being killed at quite a rate. Do the sums and you find that globally, tobacco products kill someone every 6 seconds


Tobacco use kills more than 5 million people per year. It is responsible for 1 in 10 adult deaths. Among the five greatest risk factors for mortality, it is the single most preventable cause of death. Eleven per cent of deaths from ischaemic heart disease, the world’s leading killer, are attributable to tobacco use. More than 70% of deaths from lung, trachea and bronchus cancers are attributable to tobacco use. If current patterns continue, tobacco use will kill more than 8 million people per year by 2030. Up to half of the world’s more than 1 billion smokers will die prematurely of a tobacco-related disease.

via World Health Organisation

Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death in the world today. It claims more lives globally than HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and malaria combined. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), unless urgent action is taken, tobacco could kill one billion people during this century

via The Independent (Uganda).

I’m not happy about it, you’re not happy about it and Philip Morris isn’t happy about it either. We all think they can do better (although we might not agree on the definition of ‘better’). And despite what you might imagine, tobacco companies are doing better; while usage is falling in the developed world, tobacco companies are proving successful in aggressively targeting developing countries.  It is a tactic that is working. In the past decade tobacco has been the best performing sector on the stock market, even outperforming internet stocks.

Tobacco’s risk-adjusted return over the past decade was 3.6 percentage points more than the next best performer, Internet and catalog retailers, and 4.2 percentage points more than the No. 3 industry, road and rail companies. The MSCI World Index returned 2.8 percent on that basis.

Bloomberg news

Despite increasing tax and legislation in western countries, tobacco company revenues are increasing thanks to the increasing prosperity of consumers in China, Africa and other parts of the world.

“Over the past decade a clear dichotomy has developed between high-income and low- to middle income countries. Cigarettes are becoming less affordable in high-income countries and more affordable in low- to middle income countries.”
Cigarette affordability [pdf] – tobaccofreecenter.org

These governments are not unaware of the public health burden that they face. WHO estimates that by 2030 more that 80% of the tobacco deaths will be in low and middle income countries. Governments are taking action but not enough.

Taxes are being raised across Africa but are far below WHO recommended levels. Moreover, the industry puts pressure on tobacco producing countries, making the case that their economies wouldn’t cope without the tobacco farms, which could move if conditions become unfavourable.

Van Gogh Skull with cigarette

At least it keeps you slim.

In August, British American Tobacco (BAT) Uganda, announced that cigarette sales had gone up by 29% in Uganda compared to a similar period in 2010.

BAT argues that tobacco is a leading tax revenue payer and that the livelihoods of 600,000 tobacco farmers, particularly in Arua District in the West Nile region, where BAT runs an out-growers programme, depend on it. BAT also argues that it is an important export for the country.

“It is not the tobacco companies which pay tobacco taxes, it is the smokers,” counters Dr Ndyanabangi, who argues that taxes on tobacco are simply passed on to consumers. She also maintains that the health care costs of treating tobacco-related diseases outweigh the economic benefits of the tobacco industry.

Tobacco … aggravates environmental degradation through clearing forests to make way for tobacco farms and leads to diversion of agricultural land to tobacco farming since the0 crop can only be grown alone.

via The Independent (Uganda).

But we knew all this, right? Yes and no, public health campaigners are vocal about the many dangers and evils of the tobacco trade but drug law reformers are strangely silent. We never tire of drawing parallels between drugs and alcohol, particularly with regard to prohibition, but tend to fall silent on the subject of smoking. Perhaps understandably so, tobacco isn’t a very good case study for the benefits of legal drugs.

Prof. David Nutt and the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, did include tobacco in their risk assessment of all drugs. They ranked it 6th worst behind alcohol, heroin, crack, cocaine and crystal meth. Yet, as recent article in the Lancet points out, tobacco kills more people than all other drugs combined. Meanwhile, moderate marijuana smoking doesn’t impair lung function. Perhaps we can make the case that marijuana is the lesser of two evils? Strangely, while there is indirect evidence that marijuana users drink less, there is very little research that I know of looking at the relationship between tobacco and marijuana smoking. It seems like we don’t know if the latter increases or decreases use of the former.

Without an integrated approach to all recreational drugs legal and illegal, the logic of our arguments are weakened considerably. Drug reformers need to grasp the nettle of tobacco.

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About Caspar

Caspar Addyman has a BA in mathematics, a BSc in psychology and PhD in developmental psychology. He works at the CBCD at Birkbeck, University of London. Before becoming an infantologist he spent eight years writing trading systems in the City. He lives in Brixton, Berlin and Dijon. He never drinks the same drink twice in a night and dances without spilling a drop. Twitter: @BrainStraining
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  1. Pingback: Tobacco profits $35bn last year at cost of 6 million dead | yourbrainondrugs.net

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