The World Health Organization raised its estimate of smoking-related deaths Friday, saying 4.9 million people die each year and warning that its projection of 10 million deaths annually by 2030 was too low.
The U.N. health agency estimated two years ago that 4 million people a year die of smoking-related illnesses. The new figure reflects research on the role of tobacco in tuberculosis and heart deaths in China and India, said Derek Yach, WHO executive director for non-communicable diseases.
The WHO issued the figures ahead of a crucial round of talks starting next week in Geneva on an international anti-tobacco treaty.
The so-called Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is meant to be completed by next May. It includes provisions to clamp down on advertising and promotion, on secondhand smoking and on smuggling. There continues to be disagreement over how tough the treaty should be. Negotiators will seek to resolve some of the differences in the two weeks of talks.
"This is a critical moment for the negotiations," WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland said. "The technical work is now complete. The time has come for all countries to show their determination about curbing the tobacco epidemic."
She urged governments to step up efforts to reach an agreement by the target date.
For WHO, the most important indicator of the death toll in the decades to come is youth smoking. The health agency is helping to fund the Global Youth Tobacco Survey to assess the true scale of tobacco consumption among schoolchildren in countries around the world.
Regardless of any decisions at the Geneva conference, the death rates will continue to rise to reflect the surge in smoking in developing countries, WHO admits.
Key to anti-smoking efforts is China. There are currently 320 million smokers and 1 million deaths per year in the world's most populous nation. An estimated 60-65 percent of men smoke and only 10-20 percent manage to kick the habit - far lower than in most European countries - according to Yach.
The government is slowly moving to institute controls such as smoke-free schools and restrictions on smoking in public places. China also wants to ban cigarette vending machines.
But tobacco tax is a bigger source of revenue than income tax, which limits the incentive for the China's government to try to hard to reduce smoking.
By Clare Nullis