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WHO Conference Recommends Nations Increase Tobacco Taxes To Save Lives

October 17, 2014

Meeting in Moscow on implementing the world’s first public health treaty, the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, country delegates from around the world have unanimously recommended that parties to the treaty increase tobacco taxes to reduce tobacco use and save lives.

The 179 parties to the treaty are legally obligated to raise taxes on tobacco products to reduce tobacco consumption. The guidelines unanimously adopted this week will help parties meet this obligation.

Studies and experience from around the world show that making tobacco products more expensive by raising taxes is the most effective way to reduce tobacco use, especially among vulnerable populations such as youth, pregnant women and low-income tobacco users. Tobacco taxes are also an effective way for governments to generate revenue.

The new guidelines point to a WHO recommendation that countries set tobacco excise taxes at 70 percent or more of the retail price. The guidelines also:

  • State that taxes should increase over time so that tobacco products gradually become less affordable, and
  • Encourage countries to make tobacco tax structures as simple as possible in order to reduce administrative costs and tax evasion and yield more revenue for government budgets.

The recommendation to raise tobacco taxes was particularly heartening given the efforts of the International Tax and Investment Center – an organization supported by all four major international tobacco companies – to convene a meeting of delegates before the conference began and stop the guidelines.

The tobacco industry is charging that the guidelines will restrict countries’ sovereign right to legislate according to their specific needs and legislative systems. Such arguments are far from the truth and are obvious reactions from tobacco companies scared of losing customers due to higher prices. The guidelines are a useful tool for countries in implementing their legal obligation under the FCTC to raise tobacco taxes, but countries must still decide how to implement tax increases within their individual systems.

Having unanimously approved the tax guidelines, parties must now return home and enact tobacco tax increases consistent with the recommendations. The evidence shows that a 10 percent increase in tobacco prices decreases tobacco consumption by 4 percent in high-income countries and by about 6 percent in low- and middle-income countries. Worldwide, a 10 percent increase in tobacco prices would reduce the number of smokers by 42 million and save 10 million lives, according to the WHO. [link to pdf, URL below]

Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the world. Without urgent action, tobacco will kill one billion people in the 21st century.