Facing rising health costs, Latin America strives to become smoke-free

May 30, 2013


Former President of Uruguay speaks at World Bank event to mark World No Tobacco Day 2013.

  • Education is the best and most cost-effective weapon in the fight against tobacco.
  • Currently, 25% of men and 13% of women in Latin America smoke
  • Speaking at World Bank Headquarters, former President of Uruguay Tabaré Vasquez urged decision makers to step up efforts to curb smoking in the region.

Calling tobacco use the deadliest global pandemic ever, Uruguay’s former President Tabaré Vázquez urged decision makers to step up efforts to curb smoking in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Ahead of World No Tobacco Day, Vazquez, an oncologist by profession, said that the war against smoking should not only be waged in doctors’ offices but also in people’s homes, workplaces, public spaces and especially in classrooms around the region.

Why? Because the best weapon against tobacco is education, Vazquez said. 

Making people aware of the toll smoking has on their health is more efficient and cost-effective than caring for them after they get sick from smoke inhalation, he said.

“We need to tell people that they can be happy without consuming tobacco, alcohol or drugs,” Tabaré told an audience of health experts and professionals gathered at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington DC. 

Vazquez provided the clearest picture yet of the huge human and material costs caused by tobacco in the region.

The figures provided are startling. Mortality rates for non- communicable diseases, many caused by smoking, are double those for communicable diseases:  93.8% per 100,000 people vs. 55.4% per 100,000 inhabitants. Additionally, Latin America spends more than $70 billion to treat two of the most lethal NCDs: diabetes and cancer.

Perhaps even more shockingly, around 25% of the region’s population or 145 million people are considered smokers, while an additional 20% or 139 million, are obese or overweight. If this trend were to continue, 10 million people would die from tobacco related diseases by 2025 -about 7 million of them in developing countries.

" Making people aware of the toll smoking has on their health is more efficient and cost-effective than caring for them after they get sick "

Tabaré Vásquez

Former President of Uruguay

Cultural change

Vazquez suggested two key actions to address these trends in our region:

  • More political will to mobilize existing local resources and international support, including from multilaterals organizations such as World Bank
  • A deep cultural change so people don’t trade quality of life for immediate gratification from smoking

Nonetheless, despite these odds Latin America has developed successful tobacco control policies, such as Uruguay’s 100% smoke-free areas, under Vazquez leadership. As a result, tobacco use within urban areas in Uruguay (home to 95% of the population) between 2006 and 2009 saw one of the quickest declines in the world.

Globally there are also good examples of the societal changes Vazquez refers to.

In the US in particular, there have been permanent changes against the social acceptability of smoking, mostly as a result of group behavior influencing individual behaviors, said Acting Vice President for Human Development, Keith Hansen.

“Any change in a country is permanent when it starts with public will,” said Hansen, adding that the World Bank has a strong commitment to supporting anti-tobacco initiatives, both financially and technically.

Eight countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have 100% smoke-free public environments while the rest of the region has a smoke ban on at least five key public places, according to a WHO study. These countries include: Barbados, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay.

Tobacco consumption is the second most common cause of death worldwide after high blood pressure, killing one in ten adults. Furthermore, some 600,000 non-smokers die due to so-called ‘passive smoking’ after breathing in second hand smoke exhaled by nearby smokers.

The theme of World No Tobacco Day in 2013 is to ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, a goal to which all signatories of the Framework Convention for the Control of Tobacco have committed in the next five years.