Tobacco threatens development – ASEAN countries must step-up tobacco control to save and improve lives

Bangkok, 29 May 2017: The World Health Organization has declared tobacco a threat to development to commemorate this year’s World No Tobacco Day. Tobacco worsens poverty, damages health, and causes devastating social, economic, and environmental harms to the ASEAN community and the rest of the world. The Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) urges countries in the ASEAN region to invest in effective tobacco control now in their development programs like increasing tobacco taxes to end poverty and save lives.

In the ASEAN region where half of all adult men smoke and 10% (125 million) of the world’s smokers reside, tobacco kills about 500,000 people per year. Tobacco use in ASEAN not only impoverishes the users and their families but also burdens national economies with more than US$ 10 billion in health care costs annually from tobacco-related illnesses and premature deaths.  

“On top of health costs, a country’s economy suffers when sick or dying smokers cannot work, and because smoking prevalence is much higher among men with low education and low income, in many ways, tobacco and poverty are part of a vicious cycle that deals a double blow to poor people. Money spent on tobacco means less money for necessities such as food, health care, shelter, and education, while diseases from tobacco cause the poor untold suffering and drive them deeper into poverty when breadwinners fall sick or die early,” said Ms. Bungon Ritthiphakdee, SEATCA Executive Director.

According to Ms. Ritthiphakdee, in addition to health harms and productivity losses, tobacco is a threat to attainment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in the following ways:

  • Growing tobacco takes away land from food production.
  • Child labor in tobacco farms deprives children of education.
  • Tobacco farmers are forced to make and pay interest on large loans and are paid very low prices by leaf buyers, keeping them in poverty and debt.
  • Tobacco farmers and workers (including children) are at risk of Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS) and other skin and respiratory diseases and cancer.
  • Chemical fertilizers and pesticides in tobacco farming poison land and water sources.
  • Curing tobacco leaves requires cutting of millions of trees for firewood annually.
  • Toxic and non-biodegradable cigarette butts are a major land and marine pollutant.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) provides a clear roadmap to tackle the tobacco epidemic and reduce the tobacco burden to help the ASEAN region speed up achievement of the SDGs. Effective and inexpensive public health measures include substantial tobacco tax increases, bans on tobacco advertising and promotions such as pack displays, 100% smoke-free policies, and plain packaging of tobacco. The WHO FCTC also recommends governments to assist tobacco farmers to shift to more sustainable alternative livelihoods.

“Substantial tobacco tax increases is a win-win policy for public health. It is also the most direct and effective measure to reduce smoking especially among the poor. High taxes on tobacco saves lives by discouraging tobacco use while raising much needed revenues that can finance health and social development programs. Tobacco tax revenues in the Philippines earmarked by law for its Universal Health Coverage paid health insurance premiums for about 14.7 million poor families in 2014, up from 5.2 million families in 2013. Thailand has also successfully funded public health programmes through a 2% surcharge tax on tobacco and alcohol products. These earmarked revenues amount to US$ 125 million (4.2 billion Thai Baht) a year,” added Ritthiphakdee.

Wendell C Balderas, Media and Communications Manager – SEATCA

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SEATCA is a multi-sectoral non-governmental alliance working to promote health and save lives by assisting ASEAN countries to accelerate and effectively implement the evidence-based tobacco control measures contained in the WHO FCTC. Acknowledged by governments, academic institutions, and civil society for its advancement of tobacco control movements in Southeast Asia, the WHO bestowed on SEATCA the World No Tobacco Day Award in 2004 and the WHO Director-General’s Special Recognition Award in 2014.