We often refer to tobacco as an epidemic. But what does that really mean? And does tobacco-related death and disease really compare to diseases that decimated the population?

The CDC defines an epidemic as an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area. A pandemic is an epidemic that has spread over countries or continents, usually impacting a large number of people.

Epidemics occur when an agent (in this case, tobacco) and susceptible hosts are present in adequate numbers, and the agent can be effectively conveyed from a source to the susceptible hosts (by smoking). More specifically, the CDC states that an epidemic may result from:

While the CDC suggests that an epidemic can result from any one of these statements, all of these statements apply to tobacco.

The blue statements can all be tied to the addictive element in cigarettes- nicotine. The tobacco industry has manipulated the amount and potency of nicotine in cigarettes over time to make them more addictive. This increases the amount that people smoke and makes the smoker more susceptible to tobacco related diseases.

The red statement is something that the tobacco industry strives for every day- the introduction of tobacco into new markets. Recently, that has meant advertising in developing countries. “People living in poorer countries were exposed to significantly more tobacco marketing than those living in affluent countries. In communities in low-income countries, 81 times more tobacco adverts were observed than in high-income countries.”

The tan statement can be addressed in two ways. First, from a social perspective, more people are exposed to tobacco through advertising. Second from a scientific perspective, the tobacco industry has manipulated the amount of exposure to nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes through ventilation holes. When the chemical contents of cigarettes are measured, the ventilation holes are left open. When a person smokes a cigarette, their fingers or lips close those holes, resulting in the smoker inhaling a much higher concentration of chemicals.

But what does all of this mean?

In the simplest terms, tobacco IS an epidemic. But it’s different from other epidemics because it has been created and spread by corporations. As the World Health Organization stated in a report, “Tobacco use is unlike other threats to global health. Infectious diseases do not employ multinational public relations firms. There are no front groups to promote the spread of cholera. Mosquitoes have no lobbyists.”

Despite the fact that tobacco is an epidemic, it must be treated differently. We must go after the vector of the disease, which in this case is the tobacco industry. ASH is dedicated to ending the tobacco epidemic through our work on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), criminal liability, human rights, and changing the way tobacco is sold.

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