The number of men who use tobacco has declined for the first time since the World Health Organization started tracking it. The shift is significant because 80 percent of smokers are men.


Here’s a stat – 4 out of 5 smokers around the world are male. But a new report finds that for the first time in two decades, the number of men using tobacco is decreasing. NPR’s Pien Huang tells us what’s going on.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: If you’re buying a pack of Derby cigarettes in Brazil, about 75% of the cost is taxes. The quit hotline is printed on the pack, along with pictures of sickness and death. Tobacco researcher Stella Bialous describes a few.

STELLA BIALOUS: Like a kid coughing to explain the harms of secondhand smoke. They’ll have somebody clutching their chest, looking like they’re having a heart attack. They have one that has a mouth cancer. So they have, like, this diseased mouth.

HUANG: Bialous is now at the University of California, San Francisco, but she’s originally from Rio de Janeiro. She says fewer people today are using tobacco. And she says government policies have helped, like those warnings on cigarette packs and strict bans on advertising.

The new smoking numbers come from a World Health Organization report. The number of men using tobacco peaked in 2018 at around 1.1 billion. Ruediger Krech with the WHO says for the first time in 20 years, those numbers are starting to fall.

RUEDIGER KRECH: Fewer males using tobacco products means fewer people will suffer the avoidable pain and death that they cause.

HUANG: The report focuses on men because some 40% of men worldwide smoke or chew, but only 10% of women do.

Geoffrey Fong studies tobacco use at the University of Waterloo in Canada. He says it’s the No. 1 cause of preventable disease and death. Every year, 8 million people die from using tobacco or breathing secondhand smoke. Fong celebrates the decrease in smokers, but he says tobacco is still a huge public health problem.

GEOFFREY FONG: Tobacco use isn’t like malaria or polio. It is a corporate-borne epidemic.

HUANG: Fong says the tobacco industry is fighting hard to keep their customers and profits. The other big obstacle is social norms. People smoke during work breaks or to relax with friends.

Bialous in San Francisco says habits are slow to change, but strong policies help. She says that growing up in Rio…

BIALOUS: I remember when we could smoke in the plane, and it could smoke in restaurants. And we could smoke in classrooms, even.

HUANG: Now, with indoor smoking banned in many countries, that’s something her son, who’s 20 years old, can’t even imagine.

Pien Huang, NPR News.

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