In the 20th century, tobacco use killed an estimated 100 million people — more than both world wars combined. Most of those smokers had no idea what they were doing to themselves. Tobacco’s deadliness was exposed more than 50 years ago, and a war on smoking has been raging for decades in the wealthiest countries. The fight has begun to expand to low- and middle-income nations where 80 percent of smokers live. Smoking rates are declining in every part of the world, with the exception of Africa and the Middle East. Still, one in five adults smokes globally. Tobacco is thought to kill 6 million people a year and is projected to take 8 million lives annually by 2030 as the population expands. A study in the British Medical Journal called cigarettes “the deadliest artefact in the history of human civilisation.”
In July 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it intended to cut the level of nicotine allowed in cigarettes to nonaddictive amounts. Such a radical step could encourage millions of American smokers to quit, and tobacco company shares plummeted after the announcement. Already, the companies have been losing legal challenges around the world to rules that require cigarettes to be sold in a brown wrapper largely covered by graphic health warnings. The so-called plain packaging requirements threaten the profits of cigarette makers by impairing their ability to earn a premium on upmarket brands. The U.K., Ireland, France, New Zealand and Norway have followed Australia’s lead in passing these laws. The high cost of defending strong tobacco-control regulations against legal challenges had long discouraged poorer nations from enacting them, according to public health groups. But there are signs the tide is turning. China, where 44 percent of all cigarettes are smoked, banned smoking in public places in 2015. Uruguay defeated a challenge to its cigarette regulations by Philip Morris International Inc. in 2016. And India hiked cigarette taxes in 2017. To preserve their revenues, tobacco companies have invested heavily in the development of “vaping” devices, such as e-cigarettes, which deliver a hit of stimulating nicotine without resorting to a stick of burning tobacco.
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Tobacco was chewed and smoked by Native Americans for centuries before Italian explorer Christopher Columbus brought it to Europe in the 1400s. Smoking became widespread after the invention of a cigarette-rolling machine in 1881. In both world wars, millions of U.S. troops were given free cigarettes, causing smoking and lung cancer cases to soar. In 1964, the first report on smoking by a U.S. surgeon general, the country’s chief public health officer, warned the public of links to cancer and heart disease. Bans on tobacco advertising followed on both sides of the Atlantic. Anti-tobacco sentiment surged in the U.S. after tobacco company executives told Congress in 1994 that they didn’t believe cigarettes were addictive, and that evidence linking them to deadly disease was inconclusive. Just a few years later, the companies agreed to pay a total of about $206 billion over 25 years to compensate governments for smoking-related medical expenses and to fund programs to reduce youth smoking. An increasing awareness of the hazards of second-hand smoke has led to bans on smoking in enclosed spaces in numerous cities and countries around the world. Tobacco taxes, long a means of raising government revenue, increasingly have been used to discourage smoking.
When it comes to arguments about smoking, there are two main camps: those who prioritize personal liberty and those who prioritize health. Libertarians argue that tobacco-control measures violate smokers’ rights. They consider cigarette taxes overly burdensome, especially for the poor. They say jury awards against tobacco companies are misguided because smokers know the risks but light up anyway. And they maintain that government has no business trying to stop individuals from harming themselves. Public health advocates see high taxes as one of a number of effective ways to reduce tobacco use, especially among the poor, who are most sensitive to price increases. They say tobacco companies surreptitiously market cigarettes to impressionable teenagers to get them hooked early. They argue that tobacco rarely affects just the smoker, given the dangers of second-hand smoke and the cost to health-care systems of smoking-related disease. Anti-smoking advocates include Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder and majority shareholder of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
First published July
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