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Smoke This…

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Every so often, we come across a topic so critically urgent, it takes over the entire TrackerNews aggregator. Typically, it is a natural disaster: an earthquake, hurricane, fire or flood. Smoking, however, turns out to be an even more deadly and costly disaster. By the end of the century, as many as 1 billion people will die from tobacco-related illnesses. We felt this topic so important, we have reprinted TrackerNews tumblr overview of the link suite below. Scientists and social entrepreneurs, please note the section on a call to action. —Ed.

“Smoke This” – New suite of links on TrackerNews.net

Talk about “low hanging fruit.” Smoking ranks right up there with HIV/AIDs, malaria, TB and flu pandemics as a global public health scourge. In fact, more people die from smoking-related illnesses than HIV, illegal drugs, alcohol, car accidents, suicides and murders…combined. By some estimates, as many as a billion people—two-thirds in the developing world—will die tobacco-laced deaths by the end of this century. There are better, not to mention more merciful, ways to manage population numbers.

Yet for all the public awareness campaigns and urban smoking bans (good luck, Alexandria!), more people are smoking more cigarettes than ever. In 2002, the tally stood at 5.5. trillion, but it has gone up by at least by hundreds of billions since then.

Smoking rates have leveled off in many parts of developed world, but are exploding in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. According to a recent World Health Organization survey of adult smokers, Russia leads the cigarette pack, with 40% of the adult population puffing their lives away. Indeed, of former Soviet republics, only Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have shorter average life expectancies.

Recently, the Philippines made smoking headlines when a video of an addicted toddler went viral. With the help of loads of “play therapy,” the kid is now down to 15 cigarettes per day from 2 packs. But his exposure to second hand smoke will no doubt still be considerable in a country than ranks as the #2 market in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.

Meanwhile, China boasts more smokers than the entire population of the United States. So keen are the Chinese on tobacco, they have become major players in its production in Africa. Fields that might otherwise be used to grow food are devoted to tobacco, both for export and use in Africa.

With 60% of the continent’s population in its teens, Africa is a particularly attractive market for tobacco companies. Start smoking young and it becomes that much harder to kick the addiction. If current trends hold, Africa’s tobacco consumption will double in 12 years.

The addiction goes beyond the smoke. Countries—especially poor ones—have also become addicted to the tax revenues cigarette sales generates. It is a stick that British American Tobacco (BAT) is currently waving in Kenya in an attempt to reverse smoking bans in public places, arguing that they “restrict trade.”

Counterfeit cigarettes are also big business, estimated at 12% of the global trade. Not only is quality control iffy (more nicotine, tar and god knows what else that combine to become the “4,000 chemicals in every puff”), but $40 billion worth of tax revenues are syphoned off as well.

Chemist Jeffrey Wigand, who famously blew the whistle on Big Tobacco’s culpability on “60 Minutes” (and went on to be played by Russell Crow in the movie, “The Insider”) called cigarettes elegant “nicotine delivery systems.” He may have given his former Big Tobacco bosses an idea…

Electronic cigarettes cut to the chase, atomizing nicotine into a vapor even more easily absorbed by the lungs. Battery-powered and comparatively pricey, e-cigarettes have become trendy, complete with Hollywood starlets purring about how safe they are, just as their grandmothers (and grandfathers) did for old-fashioned cigarettes 50 years ago.

Don’t want to lug around an addiction machine? No problem. Now you can get melt-in-your-mouth nicotine-soaked strips that even come in flavors, including chocolate and bubblegum. In a recent brief to the FDA, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, which makes a gum to help smokers kick the habit, characterized the strips as health hazards. “Dissolvable smokeless tobacco-makers” fired back that the strips could help smokers quit cigarettes, so Glaxo’s concerns were more about market share than health.



One of the proposed graphic warning labels submitted for public review by the FDA



At TrackerNews, we are constantly impressed by innovations for delivering better health care, cheaply. From diagnostic “chips” made of paper and a syringe design that breaks the cold chain for vaccine delivery, to better vaccines, bioengineering malaria-proof mosquitoes and, of course, everything imaginable with a cell phone, the commitment to improving the quality of life, especially for the poorest “bottom billion,” is inspiring. It is humanity at its best. The parade of inventions at the TED, Poptech, the m-Health Summit and other conferences is impressive. But there is rarely anything on how to combat the global smoking pandemic.

Nothing comes up when you search “smoking” on the Rockefeller Foundation website. Not a single grant. Nor is it on Google.org’s radar. The Gates Foundation has a better track record, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly for public awareness campaigns and policy initiatives. Yet even that substantial contribution is dwarfed by the billions of dollars spent collectively and cumulatively by the multinational tobacco companies.

Surely, there must be some new ideas out there. Maybe some kind of nicotine vaccine that makes the chemical less addictive? Or a cell phone support network for those trying to quit. Or a campaign that targets teens not with a “this could happen to you” message, but about how they are being cynically manipulated by the over-30 set. Real rebels don’t smoke.

How about an m-banking savings plan where people are encouraged to deposit the money they would have spent on cigarettes into a special perk-filled account?  In the U.S., someone spending $5 a day for a pack could save $1,725 in a year. Now add interest.

In developing countries, such as Bangladesh—which was included in a WHO survey of 14 countries that account for more than half the world’s adult smokers—the percentage of personal income is going to be even higher. Hello Grameen! Is there a way to tie together a non-smoking incentive with microfinance?

Smoking is a manufactured scourge. The rare good news is that we can do something about it in comparatively short order. Someone who quits immediately begins to feel the benefits, as do those nearby, especially children, who no longer have to suck  in lungs-ful of second-hand smoke.

Come on all you science smarties and social entrepreneurs! Let’s nail this. Any thoughts?

Links include:

  • “Tobacco Underground” – The Center for Public Integrity’s ongoing investigative series on smuggling and counterfeiting
  • and more…

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

3 Responses

  1. Hi Janet,
    It may be low hanging fruit, but maybe you know the story of Tantalus?

    I had to have a smoke after reading this but there’s a strange irony that you happened to make this a focus just as I’ve come to the end of my rope (or fag) with this death dealing habit. It kills not just physically but in taking much needed energy and siphoning it into prastinations and countless other evasions. A very slippery monster.

    It may well prove the “blowback” that came with European treatment of native peoples and their land.


  2. Janet, nicely done! I especially love your idea about an -m-banking account with perks with the money that would have gone to buying smokes. Do you know if something like this has been done before? I feel like I have heard of this type of thing before…

    I lived overseas for more than 11 years and the graphic images of health suffers on the cover of cigarettes has been in my life for a while. And to tell you the truth, it made a HUGE difference in how I perceived smoking. The graphic photos on the packs of cigarettes that I’ve seen are much MUCH more disgusting than the one shown in your article and it made my stomach turn just looking at them. In fact, I even went as far as asking my smoker friends to keep the smokes in their pockets because the graphic images were so distracting. By having such striking visuals staring you in the face when a smoker pulls our a smoke, the smoker no longer looks “cool” but ends up just looking foolish and isolated.

    It will be interesting to see what the cigarette company’s reactions will be if marijuana ever becomes legal in the United States. Talk about a market! I’ve heard rumors that Phillip Morris already bought up loads of land in preparation of California’s Prop 19…

  3. Guy: You have the best references ever. Can’t wait to read your new blog… and VERY glad to hear your quitting the habit…

    Brooke: I don’t think the idea of an incentive re m-banking is new, though i am unaware of anything that’s been linked to non-smoking.

    Re graphic images on cigarette packs, it’s great that it made a difference for you, but it clearly wasn’t enough to overcome your smoker friends’ addictions. And that was with imagery far more explicit than what the FDA has planned. Likewise, scary photos haven’t made much of a dent in Egypt, which boasts among the highest smoking rates in the world. In Africa, Big Tobacco is targeting a teenage population—it’s that much harder to quit if you start young. Over the last decade, the smoking rate in Zimbabwe, for example, shot up over 50%.

    It’s such a profoundly sad story…

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