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Scanning the Statistics on Smoking

Tobacco has been in use for at least several hundred years, although the cigarette did not become mass-produced until the nineteenth century. Cigarette consumption since then has taken off like wildfire. Current estimates are that over 1 billion people in the world smoke. (In other words, approximately one in three adults on the planet smokes.) The majority of these smokers reside in countries on the low end to the middle of the socioeconomic spectrum. Of this majority, about 80 percent live in low- and middle-income countries. The total number of smokers worldwide is expected to keep increasing.

Although all forms of tobacco can cause disease given frequent enough use and/or susceptibility on the part of user, some forms of tobacco are more toxic than others. While chewing tobacco and smoking pipes were fairly popular in the past, by far most tobacco is now used in the form of cigarettes, either manufactured or hand-rolled. Bidis, another form of rolled tobacco, are widely used in India and in parts of southeast Asia. Bidis are increasingly popular among students in the United States.

Smoking around the world

Cigarette use in nations with low or midrange incomes has been increasing for more than 30 years. At the same time, a general reduction of smoking among men in high-income countries has occurred. The other side of the statistical coin is that, as a group, women and teenagers are smoking more than they used to.

The World Health Organization has been studying smoking trends and statistical patterns across the globe and has found the following to be true:

  • A good deal of variation exists from one part of the world to another. Many more women smoke in Eastern Europe than in East Asia and the Pacific Region. Eastern Europe itself has a particularly high rate of smoking, with up to 59 percent of adult males smoking.
  • As with other substances of abuse, such as alcohol and cocaine, the global frequency of tobacco use varies by social class, historical era, and culture. Historically, smoking had been a pastime of the rich. This trend has changed dramatically in recent decades. It appears that economically advantaged men in wealthier countries have been smoking less. The more years of education you've had, the less likely you are to be a smoker.
  • Most smokers begin early in life, before they are 25 years old. According to World Health Organization studies, the majority of smokers in affluent countries begin in their teens. A decline in the age of starting smoking has been observed worldwide.
  • As a wannabe quitter, you're in excellent company. People all over the world are trying to quit and stay away from smokes. There appears to be a correlation between a country's standard of living, level of education, and income and the number of people who have quit smoking. The more and better-informed people are, the more likely they are to quit smoking.

The World Health Organization met in Geneva in February 2003 to finalize the wording of a treaty to control tobacco and its almost immeasurable effects on global health. The treaty is intended to reduce cigarette advertising, forbid false and misleading information from being passed along to consumers, encourage higher taxes, and promote the tobacco industry's responsibility and liability for its goods. Proponents of international smoking reduction would like to see a global ban on cigarette advertising and sponsorships of sporting events by tobacco companies. Britain recently enacted a nationwide ban on all tobacco advertising. Ireland will ban smoking in all workplaces, including bars and pubs, starting in 2004. A far-reaching ban on public smoking has already been enacted in Thailand, with observers reporting that, for the most part, the law seems to be upheld.

The U.S. smoking scene

Following 20 years of declining smoking rates in the United States, the percentage of people who smoke has reached a steady plateau of about 25 percent. In other words, smoking rates have stopped declining. Numerous statistical studies have shown that an inverse correlation exists between the price of tobacco and the number of people who smoke. In the 1970s, when cigarette prices in England fell, the number of smokers increased. In the 20 years that smoking in the U.S. decreased, cigarette prices steadily rose.

Recent estimates of the annual cost to the United States in smoking-related healthcare and lost workdays are at least $100 billion a year. Yes, you read that right: $100 billion. And tobacco's impact goes far beyond lost workdays. If you are a regular or heavy smoker, you spend significant amounts of time finding ways to get out of the office to light up. Your focus and energy are diluted by the near-constant necessity to calculate, to strategize, to sneak in those out-of-office smokes. Some people's attitudes about their work are quite casual, and they may feel that they're simply punching in and punching out to earn a wage. But you may not be one of those people. To the extent that you are focused on your work and that what you do really matters to you — and you believe in your heart that your work makes a difference to others — you must regret the time and energy that go into the pursuit of smokes.

Despite all the clamor from the Surgeon General, health authorities, antismoking activists, and those who have suffered physical illness as a result of smoking, almost one in four adults in the United States still smokes. Up to half of smokers try to quit during any given year.

There's plenty of good news in the United States regarding quitting smoking, too. Recent years of legislation represent a virtual monsoon outlawing smoking in public places like restaurants, transportation centers, and municipal offices. Educational efforts aimed at young people and other groups who are demographically poised to begin smoking have been effective. The hope is that the United States will pour more public funds (including those garnered from tobacco company lawsuits) into preventive and educational efforts. Already, there are volumes of news clippings related to events on the local and national level to stop smoking.

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