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8 Changes You Would See In a World Without Tobacco

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As of 2019, there are 7.7 billion people on earth. 1.1 billion are smokers!

Let’s imagine that, in a hypothetical version of earth, every single person stopped smoking from this moment on. Not a single lit cigarette in the whole world. What could happen?  Here’s our take, including the good and the bad:

1. Those who previously smoked could live a longer and healthier life

There have been various attempts at demonstrating how severe smoking is when it comes to life expectancy and health. To keep things straightforward, we’re going to explore a concept called Burden of Disease - this is a way of measuring the impact of health problems on a person's life.

The number calculated is called DALY, meaning Disability Adjusted Life Years. This number reflects the number of years of ‘good health’ a person loses, on average, due to an illness or habit. 

Here are some quick maths to demonstrate how this number is calculated:

Life expectancy for a given person - number of years lost due to poor health or disability - years lost due to premature death. 

To put it in simpler terms, in the UK the average life expectancy is almost 81 years. If someone who smokes were to die at 79, but be perfectly healthy until then, their DALY would be 2 - they lost 2 years of life, and this may be attributable to smoking.

If a smoker were to die at the age of 73, and have struggled with a smoking-related illness for 5 years prior to this, their DALY would be 13 years. That’s a significant chunk of their life lost that they could, hypothetically, have been living healthily and happily. 

Research has suggested that the number of years of good health lost due to smoking could be as high as 14. The key takeaway here is not to smoke at all.

But what about those who have smoked, but in our hypothetical mass-quitting universe, they stopped altogether at this very moment?

There’s a good chance they could still live significantly longer. This study found that those who quit smoking could bolster their life expectancy by up to 10 years, depending on their age at the time of cessation. The sooner a smoker quits, the longer they're likely to live. This finding is based on statistical averages - but still has huge and exciting implications!

2. Smokers could be a lot better off - up to £3,000 a year better off!

Next time you head into work, your boss announces you’re getting a pay rise of £3,000 per year (tax-free, too). That’s cause for celebration!

The National Health Service suggests the average smoker could save up to £250 a month if they kicked the habit. 

Let’s consider some of the things you could do with that money in a month:

  • Enjoy 6 evening meals for two at the average restaurant
  • Go skydiving
  • Feed and insure your dog
  • Join a luxury fitness club

...and several other wholesome endeavours.

3. The environment would breathe a sigh of relief - we’d also have cleaner beaches, streets and parks

Globally more than 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered or dumped every year. That number is difficult to fathom, and if you consider that this number is a yearly average, it accumulates quickly. For every person in the world, there are 584 cigarette butts discarded in a single year. 

Cigarette butts do degrade eventually, but depending on conditions this can take up to 10 years. This is because every butt has a plastic wrapping which does not biodegrade easily. 

If everyone stopped smoking, we would be adding zero cigarette butts into the environment. Theoretically, by 2029, there wouldn’t be a single one in sight!

This isn’t the only environmental advantage; over 4 million hectares of land currently used to tobacco farming could be used for other purposes; food farming or reforestation, for example. 

It’s estimated 200,000 hectares of forest are cut down or burnt every year for the sake of tobacco cultivation. A hotspot for tobacco farming is the Miombo Woodlands, a large stretch of forest spanning several African countries. This forest is home to chimpanzees, leopards, elephants and a host of other incredible mammals - all of which lose their homes or lives every day due to forest fires and logging. A tobacco-less world would help endangered biosystems to continue to thrive. 

4. Millions of people would face unemployment unless drastic changes were made

The International Labour Organization estimates that up to 100 million people work in the tobacco sector. Around 40% of these work in tobacco cultivation process (growing, processing). 

If demand for tobacco suddenly dropped to zero, many would have to drastically change their source of income. It’s common for ethnic minorities, women, children and tribes to be involved in the growing of tobacco, and these vulnerable people could be in danger if they were to lose their livelihood. Food for thought!

5. The world would be more productive and healthcare budgets may increase

In 2012 it was estimated that 5.7% of global healthcare spending was on treating smoking-attributed illness. That’s around $422 billion in a single year. The NHS alone spends 2 to 3 billion pounds per year treating smoking-attributable illnesses. This money could be well-spent elsewhere! 

This isn't the only cost; all the people who are unhealthy due to cigarette smoking also affect Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rates on a global scale. GDP is an economic measure showing the total value of all goods and services created - it’s normally estimated on a year by year basis. Developed countries have the highest GDP scores.

If you combine the healthcare cost and the loss of productivity from unhealthy smokers, the estimated cost globally is $1,436 billion. As a full number, that’s: $1,436,000,000. In 2012 this accounted for 1.8% of global GDP. If smoking-related illness gradually disappeared along with cigarettes, the world could potentially be significantly better off.

6. People who used to smoke may start catching your eye

Though it may be a little shallow, it’s worth mentioning. People who smoke are more likely to have yellow teeth and nails, poorer fitness and a smokey smell about them. Smoking can also speed up the ageing process, making one look older than they actually are.

Once a person stops smoking, many of these physical traits begin to dissipate rapidly. Lung function improves dramatically in the first 3 months and the yellowing of teeth and nails stops in its tracks. Once you’ve been through a full wardrobe wash, the smell will be gone, too.

A study conducted at the University of Bristol had people view photos of identical twins, where one twin smoked and the other did not. People consistently voted the face of the non-smoker twin more attractive! Similarly, a survey conducted by the Department of Health found around half of the people asked said they’d think twice about dating a smoker. The dating pool could become a little bigger if everyone were to quit smoking!

7. Research efforts could better focus on non-preventable illnesses, rather than preventable ones

Did you know that, in 2019 alone, over 16,000 research papers on Google Scholar have been published on ‘tobacco smoking’ as a topic? That’s a lot of time, money and effort focussed on something that needn’t exist. 

There are countless doctors, academics and talented people tiring over smoking as a concept, covering a wide range of areas; why people start? How can people effectively quit? How does it relate to cardiovascular mitochondrial oxidative stress? ...We’ll leave that last one with you.

If smoking ceased to exist as a concept, these efforts could be directed to other topics; cancers that are not caused by cigarette smoke; hypertension that is not caused by tobacco or mortality that is not linked to a preventable addiction.

8. Electronic cigarettes would spike in popularity… and potentially face heftier taxation

If tobacco products vanished, within a few hours you’d likely notice some grumpy faces. Nicotine withdrawal symptoms are thought to kick in between 4 and 24 hours after the last intake, gradually becoming more intense for the first 72 hours, and then dropping off after that. It’s believed that people who quit and make it through the first week without relapse are more likely to stay abstinent, as the first week is considered the most difficult.

The day after the imaginary tobacco exodus, most smokers will likely be craving nicotine to some degree. They are likely to head to a petrol station and see what vaping is all about, or perhaps head online to The Electric Tobacconist and have a browse. Nicotine gum and patches would likely see spikes in sales too, but as some research has indicated that e-cigarettes are the most effective smoking-cessation method, it’d probably be to a lesser degree. Those who invest in a kit would find relief from their withdrawals, giving the market a huge boost. 

What next?

Tobacco is taxed heavily in the UK. The WHO (World Health Organisation) claims that higher taxation on tobacco products is the single most effective way of encouraging smokers to quit while also helping to deter young people from starting.

The Tobacco Manufacturers Association estimate that the UK government received £12 billion in tax revenue from tobacco products in 2016 alone. It’s this money that is then pumped into the National Health Service and other public services. Needless to say, if a product that brings so much money to the government via tax simply disappeared, the eye could turn to the popular alternative: vaping. 

This isn’t a given, though. Chris Snowdown from the Institute of Economic Affairs argues taxing vaping would be no different to “taxing bicycles to pay for the costs of obesity”. 

It’s difficult to say what would happen in an impossible scenario!

Final Thoughts

A tobacco-free world would be cleaner and healthier, but not without its costs. Do the benefits outweigh the losses? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think!