Tripling cigarette tax could prevent 200 million deaths this century: Study

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Researchers believe that tripling cigarette taxes around the globe could reduce smoking rates by one-third and prevent about 200 million smoking-related deaths this century.

The review article, published Jan. 2 in the New England Journal of Medicine, finds that raising the price of cigarettes may help improve the health of people in low and middle-income countries that still have increasing cigarette usage rates.

 "Death and taxes are inevitable, but they don't need to be in that order," Dr. Prabhat Jha, director of the Centre for Global Health Research of St. Michael's Hospital and a professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, said in a press release. "A higher tax on tobacco is the single most effective intervention to lower smoking rates and to deter future smokers."

About 1.3 billion people smoke around the world. The researchers estimate that 50 percent of men and 10 percent of women become smokers, rates that are still rising. Two-thirds of all smokers live in China, India, the European Union, Indonesia, the United States, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

In the U.S., cigarette smoking causes one in five deaths each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. The habit lowers life expectancy by at least 10 years, when compared to non-smokers.

Among U.S. and Canadian citizens, the researchers believe that 200,000 cigarette smokers under the age of 70 die each year. Tripling the cigarette tax -- which would effectively double the price of cigarettes in some countries – would prevent about 70,000 deaths per year. 

 The researchers calculated that a 50 percent higher inflation-adjusted price for cigarettes reduced cigarette smoking rates by 20 percent, with more poor and young people quitting due to increased cost.

The taxes would also raise more money for the governments to spend on health care. The U.S. and Canada would stand to make an additional $100 billion a year, even with the estimated reductions in smoking rates. The countries currently make $300 billion a year in cigarette taxes.

In addition, taxes would lower the price difference between premium and lower quality brands. Instead of people switching to a cheaper product, they would be encouraged to quit, according to the researchers.

"Worldwide, around a half-billion children and adults under the age of 35 are already – or soon will be – smokers and on current patterns few will quit,” study co-author Richard Peto, from the University of Oxford, said in a press release.

“This study demonstrates that tobacco taxes are a hugely powerful lever and potentially a triple win – reducing the numbers of people who smoke and who die from their addiction, reducing premature deaths from smoking and yet, at the same time, increasing government income,” he added.

Other methods that may curb smoking include boxing cigarettes in plain packaging, the researchers pointed out. Nondescript brown boxes with a smoking-related disease warning instead of company logos were shown to lower satisfaction rates and encourage more people to quit in a July 2013 study.

Previously, countries at the United Nations General Assembly and the World Health Organization's 2013 Assembly said they would work together to decrease smoking rates by 33 percent by 2025, as well as lower premature deaths from cancer and other chronic disease by a 25 percent.