geneva — While new data show that smoking globally is on the decline, the World Health Organization warns that this good news is being undercut by an alarming rise in the use of e-cigarette and vaping devices, especially among children.
“It is an alarming increase in the last four to five years. That is why we are ringing the alarm bell here,” said Ruediger Krech, director of health promotion at WHO.
“In a couple of countries, we see huge increases in the use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices. We see a 150% increase in the U.K. and in the U.S. We also see an uptick in double-digit numbers of vaping among children,” he said.
Krech accuses the tobacco industry of employing devious tactics to get a future generation of young people hooked on tobacco by introducing them to novel products “where they actually try to get our children as young as 8 years old to use e-cigarettes or vapers.”
“If you know that your actions will cause death … I personally believe that this is criminal,” he said.
Tobacco control measures effective
National surveys show that children ages 13-15 in most countries are accessing and using tobacco and other nicotine products. WHO estimates that at least 37 million children ages 13-15 currently are using some form of tobacco, and “many countries have found alarming levels of e-cigarette use among adolescents, as well.”
This trend is gaining pace at a time when new information indicates that years of tobacco control measures are paying off. According to WHO, 1.25 billion adults globally use tobacco.
The latest estimates in WHO’s global report on trends in prevalence of tobacco use 2000-2030, issued Tuesday, find a continued decline in tobacco use rates around the world. The data show about one in five adults worldwide in 2022 consumed tobacco compared to one in three in 2000.
“In just the last two years, we already see a drop of around 19 million tobacco users in the world,” said Krech. “This is despite the continuing growth of the world’s population, which added approximately 149 million adults over the same period.
“In total, 150 countries are now on a downward trend in tobacco use, with 56 among them already tracking towards the global target of a 30% reduction by 2025,” he said.
Tobacco industry targets Africa
WHO reports the highest prevalence of tobacco users are in the Southeast Asian region at 26.5%, with the European region not far behind at 25.3%. It notes that rates among women in the European region are more than double the global average for women.
Currently, the report finds that the fastest decreases in tobacco use are happening in the lower middle-income group of countries, with the lowest prevalence in the African region, where smoking has decreased from around 18% in 2000 to under 10% in 2022.
“We are seeing the tobacco industry targeting Africa the most because it has the lowest prevalence, and they are trying to increase their growth. So, they are trying to interfere with governments and policies,” Krech said.
“Also, Africa is a very young continent, so once they recruit their victims,” Krech said, “they know that they might have a presence there for a very long time.”
WHO is urging countries to fight tobacco industry interference by implementing tobacco control policies, including taxing tobacco, banning tobacco advertisements, and regulating sales.
Krech said it was critically important for countries that have not banned e-cigarettes to enact strong regulatory measures to ensure that children have no access to e-cigarettes.
He warned that the tobacco industry was making the use of e-cigarettes very attractive to get young people hooked on nicotine, a highly addictive product.
“There are thousands of e-flavored cigarettes on the market, including vanilla ice cream and gummy bears, which are very attractive to children,” he said. “We strongly recommend that all flavors be banned.”
WHO says tobacco smoking is the leading cause of preventable death and disease worldwide. It says tobacco causes about 8 million premature deaths a year and that smoking also can cause cancer, heart diseases, stroke, lung diseases and diabetes.