Who Smokes Most: A surprising map of smoking rates by country

October 19, 2012

Annual per capita cigarette consumption rates. Gray countries have no data available. (Max Fisher / Washington Post)

Nobody lights up like Eastern Europe, where average annual consumption can exceed 2,000 cigarettes per person. The very highest rate is in Serbia (2,861 cigarettes per person per year), according to data from 71 countries compiled by the World Lung Foundation and American Cancer Society. Fourth-place Russia, not far behind at 2,786 cigarettes per person per year, is now finally dealing with its smoking problem.

Proposed new restrictions in Russia -- modeled after laws in Western countries that coincided with a drop in smoking rates -- would limit cigarette advertising and public smoking in Russia, and more than double excise taxes on cigarretes. A Wall Street Journal article on the Kremlin's campaign details Russia's cigarette problem, which costs 400,000 lives and $48.1 billion every year.

The international smoking data is mapped out above. It's a fascinating bit of comparative data, with some potentially surprising pieces of information:

• The highest rates are all in Eastern Europe. The one Eastern European exception is Romania, which had similarly bleak numbers until it enacted tough anti-smoking laws in 1997.

• The biggest smokers outside of Eastern Europe are South Koreans, Kazakhs, and Japanese, in that order. China's smoking rate still lags behind Korea's and Japan's (1,711 cigarettes per person in China versus 1,958 in Korea and 1,841 in Japan), but China is the world's largest overall consumer of cigarettes. As the country urbanizes and develops, don't be shocked if they rise in the rankings.

• A 1998 study of Russian smoking habits found a direct correlation between cigarette and alcohol consumption rates and a direct correlation between smoking and exposure to "Western influences," such as Western tobacco companies marketing cigarettes as symbols of a "glamorous Western lifestyle."

• Americans rank right in the middle. The U.S. is ranked 34th in the available data, with about a thousand cigarettes consumed per person per year. We're about tied with the Israelis, the Australians and the Irish.

• In this data set, poorer countries tend to be healthier. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have some of the lowest smoking rates in the world. Indians smoke only 96 cigarettes per year per person. Ethiopians only 46. If Americans smoked like that, cigarette companies would collapse overnight, but health-care costs would drop dramatically as well; direct health-care costs related to smoking in the United States are estimated at $96 billion per year.

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Max Fisher | October 18, 2012