Alere Health Blog


Tobacco Use Epidemic - Are We Winning?

Posted by Ken Wassum on Apr 3, 2012 12:51:00 AM


For the past two or three decades, some brilliant people in the US and abroad have made a priority of reducing disease and death – and those committed to reducing the toll of tobacco continue to work tirelessly and with tremendous optimism. Having just returned from the 15th World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Singapore, I am encouraged by the progress made in some areas of tobacco control, yet very discouraged by the lack of progress in others.

Over the course of the next several weeks I will be posting a series of blog posts that address many of these issues and more in greater detail.

To get started, let’s look at some of the accomplishments we’ve made over the past couple decades:

  • 174 countries have signed and ratified the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control that addresses the tobacco epidemic from both policy and treatment perspectives.
  • More countries than ever provide access to toll-free tobacco Quitlines, including North America where all 50 states, 3 US territories, and 12 Canadian provinces have such services. Quitlines exist throughout Europe and in many parts of Asia and Oceania.
  • Many countries with National Health Services, such as the UK, have expanded community-based clinical treatment for tobacco use.
  • Graphic warnings on cigarette packs have been adopted by many countries around the world. In some countries “plain packaging” is on the horizon.
  • Many countries have raised taxes on tobacco products, especially cigarettes, resulting in lower tobacco use prevalence.
  • The US FDA has been given unprecedented authority to regulate tobacco products.
  • Tobacco use prevalence in the US has declined from about 27% in 1991 to about 19% in 2010.

Yet, should you think these accomplishments mean we are “winning” the battle, here are some sobering, even chilling, facts:

  • In 2011, tobacco use killed almost 6 million people worldwide.
  • Global tobacco-related deaths have nearly tripled in the past decade.  The number of annual deaths in the US from tobacco use (443,000) has remained unchanged for the past couple decades.
  • Each day, nearly 4,000 kids in the US try their first cigarette and an additional 1,000 kids under 18 years of age become new regular, daily smokers. That’s nearly 400,000 new underage daily smokers in this country each year.
  • If trends continue, 1 billion people around the world will die from tobacco use and exposure during the 21st century. To put that mind-boggling number in perspective, that’s 1 person every 6 seconds.
  • Tobacco tax revenues in the US have reached unprecedented levels at the state level and the national level, yet tobacco control remains shamefully under-funded and under-resourced. Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization, sums it up succinctly when she states, “Measures to tackle the epidemic remain seriously under-funded
  • Cessation services to help tobacco users quit remains the “orphan” of tobacco control and fails to be resourced to its full potential. It has become an issue of social justice.
  • The tobacco industry in their multi-national capacity have increased their efforts to both confound and delay tobacco control in the US and have increased efforts to sell their deadly products abroad, targeting women and children in developing countries. They continue to challenge the FDA in implementation of evidence-based initiatives by the Center for Tobacco Products.
  • According to the March 2012 Surgeon General’s Report, one in five high school students in the US smokes, and over half of these youths also use a smokeless tobacco product. Nearly 90% of youths start smoking before the age of 18.

We are clearly at a crossroads. Smoke-free laws have taken effect across the US, and the public has the mistaken perception that the battle against tobacco use has been won. Yet those dying of tobacco-related diseases continue to die behind closed doors, away from public view. Dying from smoking is rarely quick and never painless. Many governments around the world, including the US, continue to underfund proven strategies to reduce disease and death caused by tobacco products and under-prioritize the enormity of the tobacco epidemic, especially among our children and our most vulnerable populations.

There is a lot to discuss here, so please stay tuned.

Ken Wassum has been treating tobacco users for over 19 years. He is past President of The Association for the Treatment of Tobacco Use and Dependence and previously served on its Board of Directors. Join him as he blogs about the effects of the tobacco epidemic, the efforts of cessation advocates, and the work left for us to rid the world of nicotine addiction. Read Ken Wassum's blog posts.

Visit to learn about Alere Wellbeing’s Quit For Life® Program, the only commercial tobacco cessation program in the U.S. with proof of effectiveness published in multiple peer-reviewed scientific journals over the course of 25 years.


Topics: Smoking, Tobacco News, Quit Smoking Treatment, Quit For Life, Chronic Disease

Get Blog Updates Delivered to Your Inbox