World Health Organization Calls for Higher Taxes on Tobacco
WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 â€” Cigarettes are cheaper in developing countries today than they were a decade ago, according to a new study by the World Health Organization that warns that low prices will lead to a rise in smoking-related deaths.
The study, which examined price trends from 1990 to 2000 in more than 80 countries, called on finance ministers to raise tobacco taxes to discourage consumption. It found that in some poor countries, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes is cheaper than two pounds of bread or rice.
"The market is working in favor of people spending money cheaply on cigarettes," said Dr. Derek Yach, a top official of the health organization and one of the study's authors. "We don't think that is healthy."
The authors said it was "particularly troubling" to see prices drop by more than 50 percent in Vietnam, Egypt and Iran. But while tobacco prices in developing nations have not kept pace with wages and inflation, the prices have generally gone up in industrialized nations.
The study, which appears in the current issue of Tobacco Control, a medical journal based in London, cites a World Bank report that said a price increase of 10 percent would be likely to reduce demand for tobacco products by about 4 percent in wealthy nations and by 8 percent in low- and middle-income countries.
If every country raised cigarette taxes by 10 percent, the study said, 42 million smokers would quit and a minimum of 10 million tobacco-related deaths would be averted.
The manufacturer of Marlboro, Philip Morris, took issue with the research, particularly with the assertion that taxes should be raised.
"Our prices have risen over time to reflect increased costs and increased tax assessments," said a prepared statement issued by Philip Morris International, a wholly owned subsidiary that markets tobacco overseas.
"We don't oppose taxes per se," the statement went on. "We do take issue with the imposition of tax burdens where taxes become so excessive that adult consumers who choose to smoke can no longer afford to do so."
The study found that cigarette prices tended to be higher in nations with strong tobacco control programs, among them Norway, Australia and Hong Kong. But in wealthy nations where tobacco control policies were weak, including Japan and Switzerland, the study found that prices remained relatively low.
In Norway, for instance, a pack of Marlboros cost $6.48 in March 2001; in Japan, the price was $2.34.
Under its director general, Dr. Gro Harlem Bruntland â€” a former prime minister of Norway â€” the World Health Organization has made tobacco control a high priority. The organization has initiated talks on an international treaty that would regulate cigarette advertising and marketing, foster international cooperation on research and control tobacco smuggling. Further negotiations are to take place in Geneva next month.
The study was part of that effort, Dr. Yach said. "We see it as part of providing critical information to governments," he said, "which we hope will help them understand tobacco pricing policy."