Tobacco: the breathtaking epidemic

Despite its disastrous effect on users health, tobacco smoking continues to thrive across the globe. Each year the WHO-launched World No Tobacco Day strives to raise awareness on the destructive effects it has on people’s respiratory health, but is this sufficient to have a concrete impact and improve outcomes?

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A ubiquitous public threat

For decades, societies worldwide have known the devastating impact tobacco can have on an individual’s health, yet every year, tobacco is still thought to kill at least eight million people.1,2 Despite being entirely preventable, the epidemic continues to thrive and is tragically shifting towards the developing world where around 80% of the global smoking population now reside. Only one in three countries monitor tobacco use and its impact at least once every five years, meaning the scale of the epidemic is likely largely undetected and overlooked.2

Raising awareness

Because of this troubling reality, the World Health Organization (WHO) and its global partners forged a collaboration to highlight the issue and launched World No Tobacco Day. Every year on May 31st, the initiative strives to encourage a 24-hour abstinence from tobacco, while raising awareness of the destructive effects it has on respiratory health.1 The 2019 campaign saw additional involvement from the European Respiratory Society (ERS) and the Forum of International Respiratory Societies (FIRS), with the goal of strengthening the implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).3 “Tobacco smoking is without doubt the single most important risk factor for respiratory disease” commented President of ERS and FIRS, Professor Tobias Welte.

“We know what is effective in reducing the rates of tobacco smoking: high prices on tobacco, legislation to protect children and adults from second-hand exposure, strict marketing bans, regulation of tobacco products, packaging and point-of-sale displays, raising public awareness, and limiting interactions between public officials and the tobacco industry.”3 Yet Welte believes that these tactics must be used in conjunction with effective, free smoking cessation services (ideally incorporating professional counselling and subsidized or free stop-smoking medication) to successfully reduce morbidity and mortality from smoking over the next 20 years.3 According to the WHO, counselling and medication can more than double the chance of successful smoking cessation. Yet only 26 countries, or 33% of the global population, have national comprehensive cessation services with full or partial cost-coverage available to aid smokers.2

A need for action

Despite global and national commitments to decrease tobacco use by 30% by 2025 and improve related morbidity and mortality rates, the WHO has alerted nations that if the current speed of action continues, the world will only see a 22% reduction by 2025.3 To promote further implementation of the FCTC, organizations such as FIRS are calling for greater endeavors to:3

  • Improve public access to free stop-smoking services;
  • Create plain, standardized packaging or packaging with large graphic health warnings;
  • Abolish exposure to second-hand tobacco in all public places, indoor work environments and on public transport;
  • Raise taxes and prices on tobacco products;
  • Impose comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship;
  • Launch mass media initiatives that educate the public about the damaging health effects of tobacco use and second-hand smoke

Uniting efforts to increase pressure upon governments and policymakers, while educating the public and providing smokers with comprehensive cessation support, can help to battle one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced.


  1. WHO highlights huge scale of tobacco-related lung disease deaths. Available at: Accessed: August 2019.
  2. Tobacco. Available at: Accessed: August 2019.
  3. European Respiratory Society. World No Tobacco Day 2019: we must maintain pressure to stop the tobacco epidemic. Available at:–we-must-maintain-pressure. Accessed: August 2019.

January 2020. RESP 42003

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