27 February 2014

Maria Leon Roux – a taxation approach to deter smokers

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Scientist at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) talks tax and price polices for tobacco

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has produced a handbook detailing the scientific evidence on tobacco pricing and tobacco control entitled: Effectiveness of Tax and Price Policies for Tobacco Control. This was volume 14 in a series of IARC handbooks on cancer prevention. Maria Leon Roux was the IARC scientist who oversaw its development, as part of the PPACTE consortium, an EU-funded project. Leon Roux talks to youris.com about tobacco pricing policies and control of tobacco in Europe.

Why did your organisation get involved with this project?
IARC has a series of publications, one of which are our handbooks on cancer prevention. We saw this project as a way of producing one on assessing the influence of taxation and prices in reducing tobacco use. Tobacco is the main preventable cause of cancer and our agency is very interested in interventions to prevent cancer.

What was its most significant message?
The handbook shows that increases in tobacco taxes, which lead to significant increases in the price of tobacco products, are a very effective way of reducing tobacco use. For this intervention to work, these taxes should be increased progressively and rise above the general increase in the cost of living and increase in income. Otherwise the impact of the tax is not significant or tobacco even becomes more affordable.

Why is pricing and tobacco still important?
Our work demonstrates that increases in tobacco prices can reduce tobacco use. In Europe 82% of lung cancer is caused by cigarette smoking and there are more than 100 million smokers. The longer you smoke, the earlier age you start smoking and the great amount you smoke per day heightens your risk. And if you quit smoking you see benefits through reduced risk of cancer and of other diseases such as cardiovascular and chronic pulmonary diseases.

Smoking is recognised as unhealthy. Is there more that can be done regards public education?
In some countries there is still room for improvement, so it is important to keep repeating the message that quitting smoking has health benefits. Also not everyone is aware that exposure to second hand smoke causes lung cancer. In the UK it is estimated that 15% of cancer in non-smokers is caused by exposure to passive smoking. And pregnant women sometimes overlook the negative effects smoking can have on a foetus. 

Does the tobacco industry play a role in this issue?
Historically, the tobacco industry has in many countries lobbied against increases in tobacco taxes. One argument it uses is that increases in taxes translates into price increases which lead to more counterfeiting of cigarettes and other forms of tax evasion such as smuggling of legally produced cigarettes. But this handbook has a chapter on this issue and it shows that taxation is still effective in the presence of tax evasion. It also shows that it is simply not necessarily true that a tax increase is going to lead to more evasion or avoidance.

The tobacco industry also tries to influence how governments spend the revenue raised from tobacco taxation so that they are not used for cessation campaigns or tobacco control intervention or anything that will get in the way of their ability to make a profit.

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