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Tobacco — Global Issues


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  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

Tobacco and smoking have a number of negative effects:

  • Tobacco smoking kills
  • Tobacco exacerbates poverty
  • Tobacco contributes to world hunger by diverting prime land away from food production
  • Tobacco production damages the environment
  • Tobacco reduces economic productivity
  • While the Tobacco industry may employ people, this can be considered an example of wasted labor, capital and resources.

The World Health Organization has noted that policy measures such as complete bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and its sponsorship do decrease tobacco use. However, the tobacco industry uses its enormous resources to derail or weaken laws and agreements in various countries and regions.

These issues are introduced below.

On this page:

  1. Tobacco Smoking kills
  2. Tobacco Exacerbates Poverty
  3. Tobacco contributes to world hunger, diverting prime land from food production
  4. Tobacco production damages the environment
  5. Tobacco Reduces Economic Productivity
  6. The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control
    1. Treaty adopted despite heavy lobbying by big tobacco
    2. WHO MPOWERing countries with effective policies
    3. Advertising bans work; self-regulation does not
    4. Tobacco taxes; one of the most effective measures to reduce smoking
    5. Progress with more countries adopting anti-tobacco measures
  7. Tobacco Industry Hitting Back
    1. Expanding into Developing Nations Markets
    2. Targeting Children, Teenagers and Women
    3. Public Relations and WHO-Discrediting Campaigns
    4. Corruption
    5. Tobacco Companies Accused of Attempting to Undermine Tobacco Treaty
  8. Wasted wealth, resources and labor
  9. Electronic cigarettes
  10. Free choice?
  11. More information

Tobacco Smoking kills

The world’s premier health organization, the World Health Organization (WHO) is quite blunt about the impacts of tobacco and smoking:

  • Tobacco smoking is the second major cause of death in the world.
  • An estimated 1.3 billion people smoke
    • 84% of all smokers live in developing and transitional economy countries
  • Tobacco is the fourth most common risk factor for disease worldwide.
  • Second-hand smoke is also a very serious problem:
    • Second-hand smoke causes 600,000 premature deaths per year.
    • Of the over 4000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, at least 250 are known to be harmful and more than 50 are known to cause cancer.
    • About 40% of all children are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke at home.
    • 31% of the deaths attributable to second-hand smoke occur in children.
    • 10% of the economic costs related to tobacco use are attributable to second-hand smoke.
  • Tobacco companies spend tens of billions of dollars each year on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. One third of youth experimentation with tobacco is attributed to this spending


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Tobacco Exacerbates Poverty

It is worth citing the WHO again for a summary of how tobacco exacerbates poverty:

Tobacco and poverty are inextricably linked. Many studies have shown that in the poorest households in some low-income countries as much as 10% of total household expenditure is on tobacco [and therefore] less money to spend on basic items such as food, education and health care. In addition to its direct health effects, tobacco leads to malnutrition, increased health care costs and premature death. It also contributes to a higher illiteracy rate, since money that could have been used for education is spent on tobacco instead. Tobacco’s role in exacerbating poverty has been largely ignored by researchers in both fields.

Why is tobacco a public health priority?, World Health Organization, December 1, 2004

John Madeley also notes in his book, Big Business Poor People (Zed Books, 1999), that heavy advertising of tobacco by Transnational Corporations (TNCs) can convince the poor to smoke more, and to use money they might have spent on food or health care, to buy cigarettes instead.

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Tobacco contributes to world hunger, diverting prime land from food production

Smoking also contributes to world hunger as the tobacco industry diverts huge amounts of land from producing food to producing tobacco as John Madely also notes:

Dr Judith MacKay, Director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control in Hong Kong, claims that tobacco’s minor use of land denies 10 to 20 million people of food. Where food has to be imported because rich farmland is being diverted to tobacco production, the government will have to bear the cost of food imports, she points out.

… The bottom line for governments of developing countries is that the net economic costs of tobacco are profoundly negative—the cost of treatment, disability and death exceeds the economic benefits to producers by at least US$200 billion annually with one third of this loss being incurred by developing countries.

John Madeley, Big Business Poor Peoples; The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World’s Poor, (Zed Books, 1999) pp. 53, 57

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Tobacco production damages the environment

Madeley also describes in detail other impacts on land from tobacco use:

  • The land that has been destroyed or degraded to grow tobacco has affects on nearby farms. As forests, for example, are cleared to make way for tobacco plantations, then the soil protection it provides is lost and is more likely to be washed away in heavy rains. This can lead to soil degradation and failing yields.
  • A lot of wood is also needed to cure tobacco leaves.
  • Tobacco uses up more water, and has more pesticides applied to it, further affecting water supplies. These water supplies are further depleted by the tobacco industry recommending the planting of quick growing, but water-thirsty eucalyptus trees.
  • Child labor is often needed in tobacco farms.

For more detail, refer to Big Business Poor Peoples; The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World’s Poor, by John Madeley, (Zed Books, 1999) ch. 4.

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Tobacco Reduces Economic Productivity

Summarizing from the WHO again:

The economic costs of tobacco use are equally devastating. In addition to the high public health costs of treating tobacco-caused diseases, tobacco kills people at the height of their productivity, depriving families of breadwinners and nations of a healthy workforce. Tobacco users are also less productive while they are alive due to increased sickness. A 1994 report estimated that the use of tobacco resulted in an annual global net loss of US$ 200 thousand million, a third of this loss being in developing countries.

Why is tobacco a public health priority?, World Health Organization, December 1, 2004

A report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says that from a socioeconomic and environmental perspective, there is little benefit in tobacco growing , and that While a few large-scale tobacco growers have prospered, the vast majority of tobacco growers in the Global South barely eke out a living toiling for the companies. Furthermore, the cigarette companies continue to downplay or ignore the many serious economic and environmental costs associated with tobacco cultivation, such as chronic indebtedness among tobacco farmers (usually to the companies themselves), serious environmental destruction caused by tobacco farming, and pesticide-related health problems for farmers and their families.

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The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control

The world’s first global health treaty—the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (summary), adopted May 2003—became international law in February 2005.

Amongst other things, the treaty requires countries to

  • Impose restrictions on tobacco advertising, sponsorship and promotion;
  • Establish new packaging and labeling of tobacco products (e.g. ban misleading descriptions such as low tar and lights😉
  • Establish clean indoor air controls; and
  • Strengthen legislation to clamp down on tobacco smuggling.

Treaty adopted despite heavy lobbying by big tobacco

This treaty was adopted despite a sustained campaign by the tobacco lobby via certain governments to dilute it—particularly the United States, Germany and Japan, as the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reported (Tobacco Lobby Threatens to Derail Global Antismoking Treaty, February 12, 2005, Volume 330, p. 325.)

Furthermore, pressure from the industry has not let up … the United States proposed a clear reference to global trade rules potentially allowing companies and governments to attack the legally binding health treaty under trade laws, even though the … treaty gives governments the right to prioritize health over trade issues.

As the BMJ also noted, poor countries are now more vulnerable to the powerful tobacco industry and need support in implementing tough anti-tobacco measures.

In recent years, in wealthy countries, attempts have been made to introduce smoke-free legislation. In California for example, smoke-free laws were introduced in July 1998. As the Californian Medical Association’s president, Dr. Robert Hertza commented, California’s lung cancer rates have fallen six times faster than in US states without smoke-free laws. (Smoke-free workplaces would hit tobacco profits, BMJ, Vol. 330, p.325) This illustrates the potential of treaties such as this global tobacco treaty to save lives of millions.

WHO MPOWERing countries with effective policies

Advertising bans work; self-regulation does not

Tobacco taxes; one of the most effective measures to reduce smoking

Progress with more countries adopting anti-tobacco measures

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Tobacco Industry Hitting Back

The tobacco companies have tried various ways to minimize damage impact to their sales and reputation. They have sought to expand markets in other areas, especially the developing world as they find the industrialized nations are increasingly hostile to their industry. Attempts at regulation are fought with various public relations attempts, and corruption.

Four companies now control 75 percent of global cigarette sales, as sophisticated strategies for supply, production and sales have produced increasingly popular global brands.

The onward march of Marlboro man epitomises this globalisation, exploiting the opportunities presented by trade liberalisation, regional organisations and the communications revolution. Control efforts are undermined by the industry’s success in developing favourable relationships with many governments, the magnitude of their foreign direct investments and the scale of advertising, marketing and sponsorship campaigns. In addition, large-scale cigarette smuggling, which comprises one-third of total exports, depletes tax revenues and further jeopardises public health.

Controlling the global tobacco epidemic. Towards a transnational response, ID21 Insights, March 2001

Expanding into Developing Nations Markets

In recent years, the damage caused to a person’s health by tobacco consumption has been confirmed, attracted particular scrutiny at tobacco firms because they knew this for years, but attempted to hide their research.

Some countries, such as the US have had the resources and political will to tackle the large tobacco corporations. However, combined with the resulting smaller and tougher markets in the rich countries, multinational tobacco firms have intensified their efforts in other regions of world such as Asia, to continue growing and selling cigarettes, as well as expanding advertising (to create demand, not meet). And they have been successful, too. 84% of the estimated 1.3 billion smokers live in developing and transitional economy countries as the WHO has noted.

Targeting Children, Teenagers and Women

Image: boy smoking. © WHO

Public Relations and WHO-Discrediting Campaigns

The tobacco industry has gone to extraordinary levels to discredit the World Health Organisation and others that are fighting tobacco issues, a WHO report charges.

A Committee of Experts had been set up in October 1999 to inquire into the nature and extent of undue influence which the tobacco industry had exercised over UN organisations.

This Committee produced the report that found that the tobacco industry regarded the World Health Organization as one of their leading enemies, and that the industry had a planned strategy to contain, neutralise, reorient WHO’s tobacco control initiatives. They added that the tobacco industry documents show that they carried out their plan by:

  • Staging events to divert attention from the public health issues raised by tobacco use;
  • Attempting to reduce budgets for the scientific and policy activities carried out by WHO;
  • Pitting other UN agencies against WHO;
  • Seeking to convince developing countries that WHO’s tobacco control program was a First World agenda carried out at the expense of the developing world;
  • Distorting the results of important scientific studies on tobacco;
  • Discrediting the WHO as an institution.


PAHO, the Pan American Health Organization (a regional office for the Americas for the WHO) issued a report titled Profits over People (17 December 2002). Looking at the Latin American and Caribbean countries and information from Philip Morris and British American Tobacco, the report details how the tobacco companies:

  • Were intensely competitive but collaborated in campaigns against common threats to the industry
  • Hired scientists throughout the region to misrepresent the science linking secondhand smoke to serious diseases, while cloaking in secrecy any connection of these scientists with the tobacco industry;
  • Designed youth smoking prevention campaigns and programs primarily as public relations exercises aimed at deterring meaningful regulation of tobacco marketing;
  • Had detailed knowledge of smuggling networks and markets and actively sought to increase their share of the illegal market by structuring marketing campaigns and distribution routes around it; and
  • Enjoyed access to key government officials and succeeded in weakening or killing tobacco control legislation in a number of countries.

They also added that these tactics and strategies are not unique to the Americas region.

Reports such as those mentioned above show that there is a lot of political maneuvering by large tobacco companies to lower prices, to increase sales, etc. In addition, the poor and small farmers are the ones most affected by the impacts of tobacco companies. The hard cash earned from this foreign investment is offset by the costs in social and public health and the environment. In effect, profits are privatized; costs are socialized.

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Wasted wealth, resources and labor

While the tobacco industry no doubt provides jobs for many people around the world, the total negative effects of the industry and of smoking tobacco suggests that this is wasted wealth and wasted labor.

Talented scientists and business people currently employed by this industry could potentially be working in other areas contributing to society in a more positive way, while agricultural workers could potentially be producing less damaging products, for example.

(Wasted wealth and wasted labor and wasted resources are discussed in more depth later in this site’s section on consumption and consumerism.)

Note that this does not have to be an authoritarian ban, as free choice is still a treasured value. Instead:

  • True costing of tobacco (factoring in health, environment and social costs, as well as additional economic costs that might be externalized) would increase the cost of tobacco products to a higher and more realistic value.
  • That could help pay for dealing with the various damages. It may potentially deter those whose free choice has been influenced by the numerous public relations, advertising and propaganda of the tobacco industry. (Some countries such as the UK do add taxes onto cigarettes, but largely to only cover health costs.)
  • Enormous PR related resources would be freed up for other needs, such as helping the tobacco industry clean up, diversifying into other areas, etc.
  • Heavily-burdened health services would additionally free up, thus leading to a potentially snow-balling series of positive effects.

A lot of this is perhaps wishful thinking, as the tobacco industry would lose out a lot, and no industry would like that. Their size, power and thus influence, means that they will (and have) hit back in many ways to dilute effective action.

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Free choice?

It is often argued by those who prefer to smoke and not see more and more restrictions put in place that it is their free choice to smoke. Some will add that they do not smoke in front of children, etc and thus sound responsible.

Yet, on the one hand how free a choice is it to decide to smoke? Advertising, peer pressure, modern culture, stress all combine to give reasons for people to smoke.

Furthermore, it may seem like a free choice to only harm oneself when deciding to smoke, but second hand smoking also kills.

And perhaps more remote than that is people half way around the world may be going hungry because land that could have been growing and sustaining local people is now diverted into environmentally damaging and wasteful tobacco production.

If one does not wish to give up smoking because it is considered free choice, how about quitting smoking so others may have a choice?

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More information

Below are a list of stories from Inter Press Service as they cover issues around tobacco further:

  1. Tobacco use continues to fall