Countries at the World Health Organization’s World No Tobacco Day vowed to reduce the number of active smokers by one-third come 2025, but getting someone to kick an addictive substance is easier said than done. A review out of the Center for Global Health Research of St. Michael's Hospital determined that tripling worldwide tobacco taxes could save upward of 200 million premature deaths related to smoking in this century.

"Death and taxes are inevitable, but they don't need to be in that order," said Dr. Prabhat Jha, director of the Center for Global Health Research of St. Michael's Hospital. "A higher tax on tobacco is the single most effective intervention to lower smoking rates and to deter future smokers."

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around half of all tobacco users die as a result of their habit, totaling 6 million deaths each year. Increasing tobacco taxes by 10 percent effectively decreases tobacco consumption in high-income countries by four percent and eight percent in low- and middle-income countries. There are currently 32 countries, eight percent of the worldwide population, that enforce a tobacco tax that is 75 percent higher than the retail price.

After raising taxes beyond inflation between 1990 and 2005, France was able to cut the country’s number of active smokers by half. Dr. Jha and his colleague, Professor Sir Richard Peto of the University of Oxford, estimated 200,000 people in Canada and the United States, including 120,000 men and 80,000 women, die each year due to tobacco use. Tripling tobacco taxes would not only prevent 70,000 of these deaths, but it would also double the price of cigarette packaging.

"There's an urgent need for governments to find ways to stop people starting and to help smokers give up,” Professor Peto explained. “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.”

Dr. Jha and Professor Peto said a spike in tobacco taxes would be especially effective in places where the rate of smoking continues to rise such as low- and middle-income countries. High-income countries would also benefit from the tax hike, as seen by France’s recent decision to raise tobacco taxes. In 2011, Australia officially switched to plain cigarette packaging in hopes of curbing tobacco marketing and advertising. New Zealand and the UK are also preparing for a switch to blank cigarette packages. Both researchers recently published papers that stated young people who quit smoking add close to a full decade back on to their life.  

“All governments can take action by regularly raising tobacco taxes above inflation and using occasional steep tax hikes starting with their next budget,” Sir Richard added. “Young adult smokers will lose about a decade of life if they continue to smoke. They've so much to gain by stopping."

Jha P, Peto R. Global Effects of Smoking, of Quitting, and of Taxing Tobacco. New England Journal of Medicine. 2013.