‘Commit to quit’ smoking to mark World No Tobacco Day

To celebrate the annual World No Tobacco Day on May 31, World Health Organization has chosen “Commit to Quit” smoking as this year’s theme.

Tobacco use is responsible for 25 percent of all cancer deaths globally

On its website, WHO provides more than 100 positive reasons for quitting, posts a Toolkit to help smokers quit, but also warns that new tobacco products such as e-cigarettes and Heated Tobacco Products are not the answer in attempts to quit smoking.

The benefits of quitting tobacco are almost immediate. After just 20 minutes of quitting smoking, your heart rate drops. Within 12 hours, the carbon monoxide level in your blood drops to normal. Within 2-12 weeks, your circulation improves and lung function increases. Within 1-9 months, coughing and shortness of breath decrease. Within 5-15 years, your stroke risk is reduced to that of a non-smoker. Within 10 years, your lung cancer death rate is about half that of a smoker. Within 15 years, your risk of heart disease is that of a non-smoker. AND, by quitting, you improve the health of your family.

You are never too old to quit smoking and thus improve your health. For example, if you quit aged 50, you could gain 6 years of life expectancy.

ALSO READ: COVID-19 pandemic might be an ideal time to quit smoking

Why quit?

Tobacco causes 8 million deaths globally every year. About one in every three cigarettes smoked in the world is smoked in the Chinese mainland, causing about 2 million deaths each year. This makes for an imperative for help with quitting. Hong Kong has lower rates, but still about 7,000 annual deaths from smoking.

When evidence was published that smokers were more likely to develop severe disease and die from COVID-19 compared with non-smokers, it triggered millions of smokers wanting to quit tobacco. But there are a lot of other reasons to quit. 

Tobacco kills half of its users. Tobacco is addictive and harms almost every part of your body.

Tobacco use is responsible for 25 percent of all cancer deaths globally. Tobacco causes over 20 types of cancer, and smokers are up to 22 times more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers.

One in five tobacco smokers will develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in their lifetime, especially people who start smoking during their childhood and teenage years.

Smoking can exacerbate asthma, restricting their activity, contributing to disability and increasing the risk of severe asthma attacks requiring emergency care. Tobacco worsens tuberculosis.

Tobacco breaks hearts: Just a few cigarettes a day, occasional smoking, or exposure to second-hand smoke increase the risk of heart disease. Tobacco smokers have up to twice the risk of stroke and a fourfold increased risk of heart disease. 

Smokers are also dangerous to others, especially at home and at the workplace. Smoking or using e-cigarettes around children compromises their health and safety. Smoking is extremely hazardous to the unborn child.

There are many other reasons to quit. It’s expensive – you could be spending your money on more important things.

Tobacco pollutes the environment. Arsenic, lead, nicotine and formaldehyde and other toxic substances have been identified in discarded cigarette butts, which leach into the soil and the oceans. Tobacco production emissions are estimated to equate 3 million transatlantic flights.

WHO warns bluntly:  “When you buy tobacco, you are financially supporting an industry that exploits farmers and children and pedals sickness and death.”

WHO also clearly states that all forms of tobacco use are deadly, and specifically that E-cigarettes and heated tobacco products are not safe and are harmful to health. A recent Stanford University study also found that adolescent vapers are 5-7 times more likely to catch COVID.

Yet ahead of World No Tobacco Day in 2021, the tobacco industry is pushing these new so-called “harm reduction” products as the answer to cessation. These products are accompanied by appalling advertising, promotion and sponsorship clearly aimed at youth in order to recruit new users, and not at middle aged smokers to help cessation, as the industry claims.

In contrast, WHO highlights the “addictive potential” of these new products, and recommends measures AGAINST e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products. WHO states Heated Tobacco Products “expose users to toxic emissions similar to those found in cigarette smoke, many of which can cause cancer”.  Switching from conventional tobacco products to HTPs does not equal quitting.

Other problems about these new forms of tobacco: the ingredients are unknown and varied; they act as a gateway for youth to move on to smoking combustible cigarettes; they will re-normalize tobacco use, just as smoking prevalence is falling.

Low and middle-income countries in particular are struggling to reduce the existing cigarette smoking epidemic, and can’t cope with another add-on epidemic. Thus, more than 40 countries and jurisdictions have already banned E-cigarettes.

READ MORE: Letter to China Daily: Wuhan virus and smoking cigarettes

And, finally, do these products really help smokers quit?

There is a lack of evidence that they help smokers quit tobacco products; instead they encourage dual use and continuation. 

World No Tobacco Day on May 31 offers a fitting opportunity to “Commit to Quit” of all tobacco products, to improve our entire community’s health and air quality. Let’s pull together to make it happen!

For more information on WHO World No Tobacco Day, please visit:


The author, based in Hong Kong, is a Senior Policy Advisor to World Health Organization; Special Advisor to the Global Centre for Good Governance in Tobacco Control; and Director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control.