Vrishti Goel considers the difficulties of getting people to give up smoking – and how a smoke-free generation could affect life and health insurance premiums
We all know that smoking is injurious to health. From graphic packaging displaying its effects to mass media warnings, no-smoking zones and awareness campaigns, this truth is everywhere. But is knowing enough? Because tobacco continues to be the leading cause of preventable death, even after we have been bombarded with all this information for more than half a century.
Nearly 20% of the world’s population smokes. Tobacco consumption results in more than eight million deaths worldwide each year, with seven million of these due to direct usage and the rest because of inhalation of secondhand smoke.
Tobacco has always been glamourised in cinema and television: from Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly and her iconic cigarette holder in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to the cigars smoked by Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in the X-Men film series and James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, many people’s favourite characters have surely helped to make smoking look cool and suave. While most countries have banned or at least discouraged smoking in youth-rated films, there are exceptions for reasons of historical and factual accuracy. However, in a recent statement, Netflix pledged to cut down depictions of smoking in future original programming aimed at younger viewers, which is a step in the right direction.
Apart from the obvious risks to the smoker, the tobacco industry also creates a serious dent in economies. It is estimated that tobacco consumption costs approximately US$1.4trn in healthcare and lost productivity worldwide each year. The industry also diverts scarce resources, resulting in a high opportunity cost. The emission of greenhouse gases makes it unsustainable in a world of global warming. In many developing countries, children from poor households are employed in tobacco farming to boost family income and are then exposed to a number of health risks.
“New Zealand is proposing to ban the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to anyone born after 2004”
Current smoking measures mostly involve increasing excise taxes, which leads to higher prices; this has proven to be the most cost-effective mechanism for controlling tobacco consumption while also generating revenue for the government. However, as smoking is driven by addiction, it is hard to quit – even if most smokers want to do so. And if one does manage to quit, it takes more than a decade for that person’s mortality to get back up to the population average. Surely, then, we need stricter measures to ensure people don’t begin smoking in the first place?
Bhutan was the first country in the world to go entirely smoke-free, with a ban on sale and production of tobacco products and the outlawing of smoking in all public places. New Zealand is proposing to ban the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to anyone born after 2004, making it effectively illegal for a generation and (hopefully) resulting in the country’s first smoke-free generation. The move is part of a plan to make New Zealand smoke-free by 2025.
A ban does sound appealing, with all the benefits it will bring: a reduced burden on the healthcare system, increased productivity and higher longevity. This is especially true for life and health insurance customers, who pay up to 50% higher premium for the increased risks of smoking. A smoke-free generation would mean fewer claims and lower risks, and ultimately these benefits would translate to cheaper premiums for life and health insurance.
However, governments are concerned that tobacco control measures would have negative economic consequences, such as lower tax revenues due to reduced demand and increased illicit activities; decreased employment in the manufacturing, farming and retail sectors; and the impoverishing of smokers through high prices.
All statistics are taken from WHO website: www.who.int
Vrishti Goel is a student editor