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What will kill our kids

I have acquired something of a reputation as the economist who is obsessed with the harm of tobacco products. “There he goes again….”  There might be an element of truth to this but maybe, because it reflects a reality, it is a relatively healthy obsession.  I’ve been reading a report by the OECD (2012) on forecast environmental problems to 2050.  It’s a good read – all the well-recognized villains are here – climate change problems, water supply and water quality issues, marine and terrestrial biodiversity destruction.  

One of the (to me) surprising entries into this select club is good old-fashioned “air pollution” (particulates, ozone etc).  Indeed, air pollution turns out to be one of the worst villains of all.

While air pollution has been underrated as a public health concern it is forecast to become the major cause of environmentally-induced premature death globally. Deaths caused by air pollution are forecast to number more than 6 million people per year by 2050.

The situation is acute in China and India. In India alone in 2010, about 90 people out of every million died prematurely from ground-level ozone. In 2050 about 130 Indians per million are likely to die prematurely from such exposure. Wealthy countries will also experience increased mortality due to the sensitivity of their aging populations to ozone pollution.

The OECD forecast that particulate pollution will kill 3.6 million people per year by 2050. Many lung-damaging particulate matter come from the burning of fossil fuels so actions to curb such usage can prove cost-effective. Indoor pollution is a major cause of death in developing world, a category that includes black carbon soot from biomass-burning stoves. Cleaner stoves running on solar power or burn fuel cleanly already exist.

Cleaning up these pollutants may have complex effects on climate because  reducing ground-level ozone and black carbon is a quick, easy way to limit global warming because black carbon particles settle on ice sheets absorbing sunlight and reducing albedo effects. However some particulates reflect sunlight back into space so reducing them might increase short-term warming thereby worsening short-term climate change.

The OECD forecast reduced mortality from unsafe water supplies and inadequate sanitation but much increased mortality from particulate pollution.  It seeks policies that will reverse these adverse environmental trends. Such policies involve emissions taxes and emission trading schemes to put a price on pollution, pricing natural resource assets to reflect their true value and the ecosystem services they provide, using environmental regulations and bans when pricing is inappropriate, removing inappropriate subsidies that encourage excessive fossil fuel and water usage, providing R&D support policies for low polluting energy sources and improving international cooperation.

The OECD fail to include cigarette smoking as an environmental hazard presumably because most, not all, the damages of smoking are borne by the smoker themselves.   It needs to be stressed that health consequences from smoking vastly outweigh those from other forms of air and water pollution.    The study by Jha et al. (2006) is instructive. Currently tobacco use kills 1 in 5 men and 1 in 20 women aged over 30 around the world.    On current trends these deaths will rise to 12 million between 2025 and 2050.  During the 21st century total deaths attributable to cigarettes will be 1 billion compared to 100 million during the 20th century.  To reduce these deaths before 2050 requires a reduction in adult smoking today since most of the benefits from reduced youth smoking will be experienced after 2050.

Moreover, the issue of achieving a substantial reduction in smoking mortality is largely an issue of political will.  Jha et al. estimate that a 33 per cent price increase would avert between 22-65 million deaths among those who smoked in the year 2000.  About 90 per cent of these avoided deaths would occur in poor and middle income developing countries.

In short easily implemented policies – policies that require political will but which will yield the public sector lots of extra revenue – to cut smoking can substantially avert a pool of deaths that is about double the pool of deaths attributable to one of worst environmental hazards namely air pollution.


P. Jha,   F. J. Chaloupka, J. Moore, V. Gajalakshmi, P.C. Gupta,  R. Peck, S. Asma & W. Zatonski, “Tobacco Addiction”  in D.T.  Jamison, J. G. Breman, A.R. Meashan, G. Alleyne, M. Claeson (eds) Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries, 2nd Edition, World Bank, Washington, Chapter 46. (Accessed online).

OECD, OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050, OECD Publishing, 2012. (Accessed online).

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