This week, the government launched a new tobacco control mass media campaign --- I Don’t Believe. The campaign touches upon the tendency to deny the risks of tobacco. It tells the story of a tobacco user who swears that his addiction to tobacco is not causing his illness, even as reality dawns upon him and he tragically succumbs to it. The campaign reflects how as a society we have come to underestimate the very real risk of tobacco to our health and economic welfare.
Tobacco use is lethal. Smoking causes 87% of lung cancer deaths and 80% of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Smokers are almost 25 times more likely to die from COPD than non-smokers. They are 10 times more likely to die from bronchitis and emphysema, three times more likely to die from heart disease, twice more likely to die from stroke.
Tobacco users live with hearing loss, vision problems, chronic cough, asthma and emphysema. A leading Indian cancer specialist estimates that tobacco, including smokeless tobacco, causes 80 to 90% of preventable cancers of the neck, head and throat. Even innocent children, who simply breathe other people’s tobacco smoke, fall victim with ear-infections, asthma, pneumonia, and even sudden infant death syndrome.
Tobacco is also pushing us into poverty. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that households – and even slum children in India – spend a significant proportion of any income (10–40% by some estimates) on tobacco.
This is money that could have been spent on basic necessities or invested in future assets. And the health costs of tobacco are staggering. In a single year in India, addressing tobacco-related diseases costs us Rs 1,04,500 crore, 12% more than the combined annual central and state health expenditures.
This reality is at odds with the tobacco industry’s portrayal of itself as a force for economic good. The truth is that tobacco is profitable only for the select few, while the majority spirals into poverty.
In India, tobacco workers are predominantly women and children, exposed to inhumane working conditions, subsistence wages, and the occupational hazards of dealing with tobacco, the mere handling of which can cause nicotine poisoning known as “green tobacco sickness.”
Addiction to tobacco and the immediate gratification of pleasure distorts the tobacco user’s judgment. The tobacco industry’s false promotion of its products, using movie stars and sports celebrities, disguises tobacco as innocuous and even desirable. Inaccurate information about the economic realities of tobacco use and the tobacco industry have allowed it to seem profitable even as individuals, workers and the economy suffers.
Our natural tendency to underestimate the risk of an everyday substance, exploited by the distorted information placed by vested interests, is allowing this lethal substance to flourish.
It is critical that we pierce through the fog of falsehoods, feel the risk of tobacco and support efforts to control it.
Country Director, Vital Strategies (formerly World Lung Foundation)