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International Day for the Eradication of Poverty

Nearly every noun in the English language seems to get a day we’re supposed to note or even celebrate. There is a National Pumpkin Day (October 26) as well as a National Pumpkin Spice Day (October 1). Today, October 17th, is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. I like pumpkins (although not pumpkin spice, unless it’s in a pie), but today’s Day is really worth thinking about.

Poverty is at the root of so many of humanity’s woes, and many factors are to blame for poverty. Let’s discuss a particularly pernicious one – tobacco.

Nicotine is highly addictive, more so than heroin or cocaine. People who are addicted to nicotine will find a way to get it. The 1.1 billion tobacco users in the world are spread across all income levels, and in fact are more preponderant at the lower end of the wealth ladder. In the case of a middle-class person in the U.S., tobacco is a financial burden. For the poorest, it can be catastrophic.

Total tobacco industry revenue in 2020 was $850 billion, greater than the GDP of most nations. Simply dividing that number by the 1.1 billion tobacco users yields an average outlay of $773. And as we repeat often, tobacco use is disproportionately a disease of the poor. Spending on tobacco reduces money available for essentials like food, housing, medical care, and education.

Take Bangladesh as an example. The country is poor, but far from the poorest. The average income was $2033 in 2020. Tobacco products are cheaper in Bangladesh than in rich countries, so simply dividing that income by $773 would be misleading. But let’s say the cost is half the average (almost definitely too low). That is still 17% off the top for tobacco products (which will lead to expensive health issues) of an average income that is already only marginally enough for the basics. One study[1] concluded that tobacco increases the number of Bangladeshis suffering from malnutrition by over 10 million.

Families living in poverty are constantly faced with tough choices. Can I send my children to school or do I need them to work on the farm? Do I buy medicine to treat my daughter’s cough if it means I can’t buy as much food this week? Or is fixing the leaky roof more important for her health than medicine?

Tobacco adds nothing to the family “basket” other than alleviating nicotine withdrawal symptoms. An end to the tobacco epidemic would help lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Unlike many other factors contributing to poverty, we know exactly how to do it.


[1] https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/10/3/210.short.