WHO reports drop in tobacco use despite industry ‘interference’ in achieving goals

Tobacco use continues to reduce globally, according to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) global report on trends in prevalence of tobacco use 2000–2030.

However, the WHO is still critical of what it terms as “tobacco company interference” in the process of reducing tobacco dependence – emphasising this in a press release entitled “Tobacco use declines despite tobacco industry efforts to jeopardize progress” to highlight the report.

The WHO does not fully flesh out how it sees tobacco companies interfering with reduction goals. It’s therefore unclear whether this is through methods promoting harm reduction and reduced-risk products over a prohibitionist approach to tobacco control (a point on which the WHO has previously levelled criticism, and one it often says is led or funded by tobacco companies) or whether it’s pointing to more traditional tobacco company lobbying efforts, such as attempts to oppose things like tax increases and laws limiting tobacco products.

The global entity did say it was aware of tobacco companies offering travel and technical support, including advisors, to countries’ official delegations for COP10 (the tenth Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control [FCTC]) and MOP3 (the third session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products).


No reduced-risk category


The WHO also does not separate out reduced-risk products – instead, putting any product containing tobacco into its broadest category “any tobacco” (thus just excluding e-cigarettes) and then only separating out from that “smoked tobacco” and, from that, its smallest specification, “cigarettes”.

The report currently categorises things like heated tobacco under “smoked tobacco use” (and thus also in the broader “any tobacco use” category). This makes it hard to make judgements on just how much of current tobacco use would be considered reduced risk.

Other reduced-risk products, such as snus or nicotine pouches (potentially left out entirely as, similar to e-cigarettes, they contain nicotine rather than tobacco), remain unaddressed. Overall, the smokeless tobacco category has 362m users globally, with the highest rates in South-East Asia – a region that has traditional, non-reduced-risk, smokeless tobacco products.


A focus on under-age use


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    The WHO did highlight that at least 37m children aged 13 to 15 (a significant underestimate, as many countries didn’t report on under-age tobacco use) are currently using tobacco in some form, and 19m are using cigarettes specifically. The WHO didn’t provide comparison data for previous years, though the 2021 report listed a similar 38m tobacco users aged 13 to 15. It said this was a worrying trend for the future of tobacco control and an indication of tobacco company interference.

    “To protect the future generations and ensure that tobacco use continues to decline, WHO will dedicate this year’s World No Tobacco Day to Protecting children from tobacco industry interference,” the WHO added.

    Still though, no matter the minutiae, the broad picture is clear: tobacco use is falling overall. Just not at as quick a rate as the WHO would like. The global entity says around one in five people are tobacco users as of 2022, down from one in three in 2000 (though it should be noted that its 2022 data is currently only based on five surveys in total, with more expected to be added in the next iteration).

    In terms of total numbers, it estimates this means around 1.245bn people are current tobacco users – down from 1.36bn in 2000. Overall, almost all countries are seeing reductions in tobacco use, with only Congo, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Oman and Moldova bucking the trend.


    Falling short of 2025 target


    However, the WHO estimates the falls being experienced globally will still leave it short of its goal of a 30% reduction from a 2010 baseline by 2025. It now believes only 56 individual countries will reach this target, down from 60 since the last report in 2021.

    Arguably, looking at the numbers, this could be down to some regions having already achieved significant reductions in tobacco use by 2010. Of the 56 likely to make the target, the highest number come from the African region (22 expected to achieve the goal out of 47 assessed), which would have been behind in tobacco control overall in 2010 and thus would have easier gains to help it achieve a 30% relative reduction.

    Supporting this, the European region – where many countries would have already taken strong tobacco control measures by 2010 – will see the greatest number of countries likely to achieve a decrease in prevalence lower than the 30% target (34 of 53, compared with 11 that will achieve the 30% goal).

    Discussions will take place on what more can be done to accelerate reductions, and perhaps save the target, at the upcoming COP10 in Panama.

    – Freddie Dawson TobaccoIntelligence staff

    Photo: Max Titov

    Freddie Dawson

    Senior news editor
    Freddie studied at King’s College, London and City University and worked for publications including The Times, The Malay Mail, PathfinderBuzz and Solar Summary before joining the ECigIntelligence team. He has extensive experience in covering fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), manufacturing and technological innovation.