Policy Lessons from Comparing Mortality from Two Global Forces: International Terrorism and Tobacco (2006)

Authors: George Thomson and Nick Wilson


The aim of this study was to compare the mortality burdens from two global impacts on mortality: international terrorism and the major cause of preventable death in developed countries–tobacco use. We also sought to examine the similarities and differences between these two causes of mortality so as to better inform the policy responses directed at prevention. Data on deaths from international terrorism were obtained from a US State Department database for 1994-2003. Estimates for tobacco-attributable deaths were based on Peto et al 2003. The countries were 37 developed and East European countries. The collective annualized mortality burden from tobacco was approximately 5700 times that of international terrorism. The ratio of annual tobacco to international terrorism deaths was lowest for the United States at 1700 times, followed by Russia at 12,900 times. The tobacco death burden in all these countries was equivalent to the impact of an 11 September type terrorist attack every 14 hours. Different perceptions of risk may contribute to the relative lack of a policy response to tobacco mortality, despite its relatively greater scale. The lack is also despite tobacco control having a stronger evidence base for the prevention measures used. This comparison highlights the way risk perception may determine different policy responses to global forces causing mortality. Nevertheless, the large mortality differential between international terrorism and tobacco use has policy implications for informing the rational use of resources to prevent premature death.                   

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