A Billion Lives Lost
The global tobacco industry is worth somewhere between US$600 and US$700 billion annually. The top six tobacco companies earned a profit in the United States in 2010 of US$35.1 billion, equal to the combined profits of Coca Cola, McDonald’s and Microsoft.
These are all staggering figures, too big to comprehend easily. Here’s another one: Smoking will kill up to one billion people this century, according to experts.
Most of you reading this fall into one of two camps: firstly, you are an ex-smoker who quit by vaping; or, you are currently a smoker and considering switching to vaping.
What’s the issue?
Vaping and electronic cigarettes are currently at the centre of controversy in many countries around the world. The impact of people switching from smoking to vaping is huge on several fronts: on the individual’s personal health, on the reduced overall impact to the public health system, and financially upon governments who see reduced income from tax dollars.
Unfortunately, it often appears that regulation imposed by governments is counter-productive to two of those facets. While banning or reducing access to vaping makes it more difficult for smokers to make the switch and therefore protects tax revenue, the burden upon both the individual’s health and the public health system are not lessened by such measures.
As we put in our Submission to the Select Committee on E-Cigarettes in August, quoting University of Queensland professor and expert in addiction, smoking and public health policy Wayne Hall: “A policy that bans a less harmful form of nicotine while still allowing the sale of cigarettes is inconsistent. [It is] giving much higher priority to the interests of hypothetical smokers (who could take up smoking via e-cigarettes) at the expense of current, especially addicted smokers.”
One billion people sounds like a lot
It is. But it’s backed up by facts.
“We have a major global industry producing a product that is lethal to at least half the people who use it. It will kill, if current trends continue, a billion people this century,” said Dr Seffrin, who leads the US national society dedicated to eliminating cancer. “It killed 100 million in the last century and we thought that was outrageous, but this will be the biggest public health disaster in the history of the world, bar none.”
(Smoking will ‘kill up to a billion people worldwide this century’)
How do we arrive at the figure of one billion people?
It’s very well established that smoking is the leading cause of cancer, and that more smokers face a premature death – that is, they die earlier due to smoking – than any other single activity. That’s old news. But did you know that if you are a continual smoker at age 35, you have a three per cent less chance than a non-smoker of making it to 50? And a 23 per cent less chance of making it to 70? And a 33 per cent less chance of making it to 80?
Those odds aren’t good. Smoking clearly causes premature deaths, about five million per year. By 2050, premature deaths caused by smoking will be at approximately 450 million for the century, increasing to at least 10 million per year for the remaining 50 years. That’s more than one billion lives lost.
Reversing the trend
It would be wrong of us to tell you that vaping can be used to quit smoking. Anecdotal evidence and user experience may suggest this to be true, but stating as such would not be legal.
How does quitting smoking help reduce the number of lives lost? The following is from a 2004 study on smoking among British doctors, which is a very famous study with startling results.
The chart above shows how quitting smoking impacts lifespan. The red line is the average life of a person who has never smoked. The blue line is the average life of a continual smoker; that is, a smoker who never quits. The gap in the middle represents the difference in lifespan between a continual smoker and a never-smoker.
The dotted blue line is where it gets interesting. The four charts show the gain in lifespan for smokers who quit at the ages 25-34, 35-44, 45-54 and 55-64. As you can see, the gain in number of years is not insignificant. Quitting between the ages of 25 and 44 has an almost negligible effect on lifespan. Furthermore, approximately an extra 50 per cent of smokers who quit smoking between the ages of 55 and 64 will live to 80 years of age. It’s never too late.
This particular study showed that 81% of men who never smoked make it to 70 but only 58% of continuing smokers. Or put another way, the median smoker loses about 10 years of life between 73 and 83, and about 20% lose 10 years between 60 and 70. The good news from this study was that “cessation at age 50 halved the hazard, and cessation at age 30 avoided almost all of it.”
(A billion lives?)
Clive Bates, who maintains a website that questions “the rhetoric of campaigners” surrounding vaping, summed up all of this information very succinctly and intelligently. He determined that smoking is the leading cause of premature death, and that:
With vaping available as an option to eliminate nearly all the risk of recreational nicotine use, a major focus of tobacco policy should be on encouraging, or merely not obstructing, middle-aged adults who cannot or choose not to quit using nicotine to switch from smoking to vaping as rapidly as possible. This means that millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of premature deaths might be avoided if smokers switch or nicotine users never smoke in the first place.
(A billion lives?)
Clive Bates, 2015, ‘A billion lives?’ (external link here)
BMJ, 2004, ‘Mortality in relation to smoking: 50 years’ observations on male British doctors’ (external link here)
Statista, 2015, ‘Statistics and facts about the tobacco industry’ (external link here)
Steve Connor, 2012, ‘Smoking will “kill up to a billion people worldwide this century”‘ (external link here)
World Lung Foundation, 2012, ‘New Tobacco Atlas estimates US$35bn tobacco industry profits and almost 6 million annual deaths’ (external link here)