Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) — especially cancer, heart disease, chronic lung disease and diabetes — have overtaken infectious diseases as the world’s leading killers and now kill 40 million people each year, equivalent to 70% of all deaths globally. Eighty percent of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, straining health care systems, contributing to poverty and posing a major barrier to development.1

Tobacco use is the only risk factor shared by all four main categories of NCDs, and accounts for nearly one in six deaths from NCDs. Tobacco use kills more than 7 million people worldwide each year.

A 2011 study in The Lancet identified tobacco control as “the most urgent and immediate priority” for combating NCDs. It estimated that implementation of WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) policies would prevent 5.5 million deaths over 10 years in 23 low- and middle-income countries with a high burden of NCDs — and cost less than 20 cents per person per year in countries such as China and India.

The WHO’s Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs (2013-2020) lays out nine voluntary targets. Among them is a 30% relative reduction in prevalence of current tobacco use in persons aged 15 or older. The Plan recommends full implementation of the WHO FCTC for achieving this target. Full implementation of the WHO FCTC would include a number of policies aimed at reducing demand for tobacco, among them are policies to:

  • Reduce the affordability of tobacco products by increasing tobacco excise taxes;
  • Create completely smoke-free environments in all indoor public places, including workplaces and public transport;
  • Warn people about the dangers of tobacco and tobacco smoke through effective health warnings and mass media campaigns
  • Ban all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

The World Health Organization has appointed philanthropist and former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as the WHO Global Ambassador for Non-Communicable Diseases.

Tobacco control is also a key part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (i.e., the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs), including SDG Goal 3, to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” The SDGs include a specific target to reduce premature deaths from NCDs by one-third by 2030 (Goal 3.4) and another target to strengthen implementation of the WHO FCTC (Goal 3a). Accordingly, and given the significant contribution of tobacco to the burden of NCDs, progress on SDG 3 will require substantial prioritization of and commitment to tobacco control policies.

1 World Health Organization. Noncommunicable Diseases. Factsheet. Available from: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs355/en/. (Accessed [August 29, 2017]).
2 Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). GBD Compare Data Visualization. Seattle, WA: IHME, University of Washington, 2016. Available from http://vizhub.healthdata.org/gbd-compare. (Accessed [August 29, 2017]).
3 GBD 2015 Risk Factors Collaborators. Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 79 behavioural, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks, 1990–2015: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015. Lancet, 2016; 388(10053):1659-1724

Last updated Sept. 22, 2017