Tobacco use could kill more than one billion people around the world this century unless governments and civil society act to reverse the epidemic, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report released Thursday.
"One hundred million deaths were caused by tobacco in the 20th century," said the report unveiled by WHO Director General Margaret Chan at a joint press conference with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"If current trends continue, there will be up to one billion deaths in the 21st century," the report said.
"Unchecked, tobacco-related deaths will increase to more than eight million a year by 2030, and 80 percent of those deaths will occur in the developing world."
The study, which provides key data on tobacco use and control for countries representing more than 99 percent of the world's population, recommends a six-pronged approach to combat the scourge.
The strategies involve monitoring tobacco use and prevention policies, protecting people from tobacco smoke, offering help to quit tobacco use, warning about the dangers of tobacco, enforcing bans on tobacco advertising and promotion and raising taxes on tobacco.
"While efforts to combat tobacco are gaining momentum, virtually all countries need to do more," Chan said.
"These six strategies are within the reach of every country and, when combined as a package, they offer us the best chance of reversing this growing epidemic."
Bloomberg, a former smoker, described the report as "revolutionary."
"For the first time, we have both a rigorous approach to stop the tobacco epidemic and solid data to hold us all accountable ... While tobacco control measures are sometimes controversial, they save lives and governments need to step up and do the right thing," he said.
The report noted that tobacco use is growing fastest in low-income countries, owing to steady population growth coupled with targeting by the tobacco industry, with the end result that millions of people become fatally addicted each year.
It said that nearly two thirds of the world's smokers live in 10 countries: China (accounting for nearly 30 percent), India (10 percent), Indonesia, Russia, the United States, Japan, Brazil, Bangladesh, Germany and Turkey.
It noted that only five percent of the world's population is protected by comprehensive national smoke-free legislation, while half of the countries -- two out of three in the developing world -- did not even have minimal data on tobacco use.
"In most countries, tobacco use is higher among the poor than the rich and the poor suffer more from the consequences of tobacco-related diseases, creating economic hardship and perpetuating the cycle of poverty and illness," the study by the UN health agency said.
It made clear that tobacco use currently costs the world hundreds of billions of dollars each year. In the United States alone, the economic losses are estimated at 92 billion dollars a year.
The tobacco industry meanwhile spends tens of billions of dollars on marketing and targets the developing word with the same marketing and lobbying tactics perfected and now banned in rich countries, the report said.
These include enticing women and teens to use tobacco and pressuring governments to block marketing restrictions and tax hikes.
It singled out higher taxes on tobacco as "the most effective way to decrease consumption and encourage tobacco users to quit."
"A 70 percent increase in the price of tobacco could prevent up to a quarter of all smoking-related deaths worldwide," it noted.