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Tobacco and Poverty

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Photo By: Rob Port

Photo By: Rob Port

This post was written by Francisco J. Quintana (Legal Intern from Universidad
Torcuato Di Tella) and Paula Avila Guillen (Institute Associate)
of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. Any questions or comments about this post can be directed to or

            Significant advances have been made and continue to be made in international tobacco control, yet more policy attention should be paid to the link between tobacco consumption and poverty. Though overall tobacco consumption is decreasing in the developed world, it is increasing in developing countries[1]. While middle and upper classes are now more protected from the effects of tobacco, lower classes remain unprotected. Tobacco control policies, with emphasis on the link between tobacco consumption and poverty, need to be designed and enforced.

            Tobacco tends to be consumed more by those who have lower incomes. 84% of the smokers worldwide live in developing and transitional economy countries[2]. Even in most developing countries, smoking prevalence is higher among low income people[3]. For the low income population, money spent on tobacco means that less money is available for basic necessities, such as food, shelter, education and health care. Tobacco also contributes to the poverty of individuals and families. Tobacco users are at a much higher risk of falling ill and dying prematurely of cancers, heart attacks, respiratory diseases or other tobacco-related diseases, thus depriving families of much-needed income and imposing additional health-care costs[4].           

           A recent study shows that in Argentina, Bangladesh, Francophone Africa, Mexico, Peru, and Vietnam tobacco products are very affordable[5]. Moreover, this study demonstrates that high prices are a deterrent to tobacco use. By keeping tobacco taxes and prices low, and thereby making tobacco affordable, governments increase the likelihood that low income households will continue to struggle to meet their basic needs. Higher tobacco taxes and prices help to reduce poverty and governments need to embrace these types of policies.

            The tobacco industry often argues that tobacco control will have a negative effect on overall employment, affecting primarily low income families. However, this argument lacks evidentiary support. Recent studies show that tobacco employment involves insufficient wages or financial return, unremitting debt, exposure to dangerous chemicals and other hazardous working conditions, green tobacco sickness, the use of child labor, and other human rights abuses[6].

            Given this situation, it is imperative that health officials design tobacco control policies that address these issues and break the link between tobacco consumption and poverty.

[1]    Otis W. Brawley, “Avoidable cancer deaths globally”, CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 61: 67–68.

[2]    WHO, Tobacco and Poverty: A Vicious Circle (Geneva: WHO, 2004). Available at: brochure_en.pdf

[3]    M. Bobak et al., “Poverty and Smoking”, in: Jha P and Chaloupka F, eds. Tobacco Control in Developing Countries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[4]    WHO, op. cit.

[5]    HealthBridge Foundation of Canada, Making the Tobacco and Poverty Link: Results from Research for Advocacy Projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (Ottawa: HealthBridge Foundation of Canada, 2011).

[6]    HealthBridge Foundation of Canada, op. cit.

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  • Sam says:

    Thanks Paula for raising awareness about this important issue. For readers who are interested, there are some further details in the WhyDev article linked below, including around the role of tobacco in driving NCDs, and work undertaken in Australia and India to get plain packaging on the agenda.

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