Need a Light? Definitely Not. But Better Data on Smoking Would Be Great

Tobacco use remains a leading cause of disease and death worldwide, killing more than an estimated six million people annually, with most of those deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries. Tobacco use kills more people worldwide than AIDS and malaria combined.

Although the overall number of smokers in the U.S. has been on the decline, the story isn’t the same globally. For instance, the WHO estimated that in the Western Pacific Region, 51 percent of men aged 15 and above smoke some form of tobacco. It’s projected that 8 million will die annually by the year 2030 if something isn’t done to reduce tobacco use.

Bloomberg Philanthropies recently awarded a $14 million grant to the CDC Foundation, which, along with the WHO, will use the funds for the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) and the Tobacco Questions for Surveys (TQS), which are a part of the larger Global Tobacco Surveillance System (GTSS). The survey will hopefully improve countries’ abilities to implement tobacco control and intervention measures. (Better data is often seen by Bloomberg as a precondition to solving any problem.)

Curbing tobacco use is a comparatively straightforward global health mission and has the potential to save millions of lives. Not to mention that the groundwork has already been laid by developed countries’ anti-smoking campaigns, which have had a relatively decent track record of success. Bloomberg Philanthropies has a giving history of aiming at what could be considered the easier global heath targets like tobacco control and roadway safety.

Related: Funders Haven’t Forgotten About Smoking. But Why Aren’t They Spending Bigger?

While it may seem like Bloomberg is taking the path of least resistance to addressing world health problems, that's actually a good thing. There aren’t too many funders paying attention to tobacco control, which can seem like a pedestrian threat compared to demonic foes like AIDS or malaria. Of course, the math is fully on Bloomberg's side (as it usually is). If Mike's millions help to decrease the current six million deaths attributable to tobacco use annually by just 1 percent, we’re talking about 60,000 people per year.

Now imagine if that needle moves not just by one percent, but by 10 or 20 percent? The number of lives saved would be in the millions.

All of which helps explain why, after road safety, Bloomberg has made reducing smoking his top public health priority. No funder spends more in this area, with the possible exception of the Gates Foundation—which often just gives its anti-smoking money straight to the Bloomberg crew. They're philanthropy's top experts on this killer.