Technology a Powerful Tool In The Fight Against Tobacco

Technology a Powerful Tool In The Fight Against Tobacco

At the recent World Health Summit in Berlin, the WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the launch of the Tobacco Cessation Consortium. A mechanism set up to engage the private sector and other non-governmental actors, the Consortium hopes to unlock financing and enhance accessibility for support services for smokers around the globe, especially in developing countries where tobacco use is rising.

As Dr Ghebreyesus highlighted, all possible tools must be brought to bear in the fight against tobacco—and advanced technologies are set to play a particularly important role. Sophisticated digital tax stamps are already being deployed to great effect in curbing the illicit tobacco trade, boosting excise revenues and discouraging the habit. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence (AI) can also help curb smoking, with the world’s first virtual health worker Florence among the exciting solutions currently on the table.

Problems persist despite progress

Major inroads have been made in the fight against tobacco-related deaths, especially in the developed world. In the last four years, the number of countries on track to slash their smoking rates by 30% between 2010 and 2025 has almost doubled. New legislation regulating the tobacco industry has seen the habit fall out of favor in many places: the EU’s landmark Tobacco Products Directive, for example, precipitated a dip in smoking rates across the continent. Nevertheless, one in four Europeans still smoke, half of whom will die prematurely as a result, losing an average of 14 years of their lifespan.

In the USA, almost a third of all cancer deaths can be linked to tobacco consumption, with the highest rates in states with the laxest regulations. In areas of the developing world with even laxer regulations, the practice is actually increasing in popularity. It’s no coincidence that more than 80% of the world’s smokers reside in low- to middle-income countries (LMICs).

Track and trace key to overcome illicit trade

Clearly, clamping down on the sale of tobacco products is key to discouraging people from taking up the habit and incentivizing existing smokers to kick it. Raising taxes is one of the most effective means of doing so, with research illustrating that a 10% hike in excise duty incurs a 5% downturn in smoking rates in LMICs. Despite this, Big Tobacco has fought tooth and nail to prevent such legislation from coming into force across the world, arguing that it only fuels the black market.

However, case studies from around the world show this to be patently false if higher taxes are accompanied by a dedicated track and trace system. In Georgia, for example, almost half of all cigarettes purchased in the early 2000s were counterfeit or contraband; after the introduction of a tax stamp system in 2013, the illicit trade crashed. By 2017, it accounted for less than 2% of all cigarettes consumed in the country.

Similar results have been observed elsewhere. Kenya suffered from rampant smuggling prior to the introduction of its tax stamp system in the 2010s, accounting for up to a third of all trade. However, in the years following, tax compliance rose 43% and revenues were up by 20%. High-tech solutions such as those pioneered by Swiss provider SICPA have also helped countries including Togo and Tanzania swell their tax coffers, while the state of California now collects an additional $133 million per annum thanks to the scheme. These successes explain why the WHO highlighted such enhanced tax stamp technology and why the Golden State renewed its contract for the system with the same provider for the fourth time.

Given these encouraging results, other countries will hopefully follow suit in implementing comprehensive and independent digital track-and-trace systems to prevent smuggling—the WHO is urging the 66 parties to its Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, which the European Union also signed on, to have such schemes in place by September 2023.

AI offers support opportunities

Aside from using technology to optimize tax collection, prevent smuggling and inhibit smoking, advanced technology can also be deployed to provide support to those seeking to quit the habit. At last month’s Summit, Dr Ghebreyesus made specific mention of the launch of Florence, the world’s first digital health worker. The AI innovation was created with the help of Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services and Soul Machines and is capable of accessing vast reams of data and information to help create a tailored plan for individual smokers, as well as debunk popular myths and refer struggling parties to dedicated support systems. Florence is expected to help up to 1.3 million people kick the habit.

Elsewhere, a new study has found that AI could also help to recognize specific environments that could trigger urges among those trying to go cold turkey and send pre-emptive assistance. According to the research, the model could predict problem environments with 76.5% accuracy. Not only could it facilitate the provision of last-minute support, but it could also allow for the analysis of failed quitting attempts to avoid relapses the next time round.

Winning the tobacco war with tech

Despite the significant battles which have been won against the only consumer product which kills over half of its users, the war on tobacco is far from over. Indeed, in the 20th century alone, smoking was responsible for substantially more premature deaths than WWI and WWII combined, so it will take the most advanced arsenal at our disposal to overcome it in the years ahead.

Fortunately, more and more technological solutions are surfacing every day to provide the firepower needed to vanquish this deadly vice once and for all. Governments must be strong in the face of an inevitable onslaught of lobbying from the industry when implementing much-needed rules and regulations, and sagacious in the tools they employ to support their legislation. The good news is that the technology already exists and has yielded impressive results, both in terms of curbing illicit flows and supporting users in their quest to quit. All that remains is to make sure the tech is implemented and available to everyone, regardless of where they light up their first cigarette – and where they will stub out their final one.

Source: Analytics Insight