Could smoking bans be the new indicator of economic growth?

You might not expect Russia, the world’s second-biggest cigarette market, where 42% of the population smokes, to be thinking of limiting the vice. Yet the country is mulling “smoke-free” measures that would ban tobacco ads, boost taxes on cigarettes and prohibit smoking in public places across the country by 2015.

Public smoking bans are spreading in many emerging economies. Cigarette firms could once rely on these markets to prop up their sales, as rich countries progressively clamped down on smoking and tobacco advertising; but whereas rising cigarette sales used to be a sign that poor countries were growing, it’s now a decline in smoking that seems to be the marker of increasing prosperity.

The links between poverty and tobacco use have been under-researched. In part that’s because smoking-related problems like lung cancer and heart disease were assumed to be rich-country problems—“diseases of affluence,” says Armando Peruga of the World Health Organization, which published one of the first studies on the topic last year.

Smoking rates do grow with the economy, up to a point, Peruga says. In very poor countries with no tobacco-control policies, smoking increases with disposable incomes—and tobacco companies have focused marketing efforts there. But as as living standards and education levels continue to rise, many countries see tobacco use fall off. Peruga says that national smoking rates also dip as governments become more transparent—presumably because tobacco companies’ have less influence on tax policy and other regulations.

The planet is home to about 1 billion smokers, according to the WHO. Nearly 800 million are in low- and middle-income countries—an opportunity not lost on Big Tobacco. China, the world’s biggest cigarette market, is controlled by state-owned China National Tobacco Company. The rest of the world is dominated by four large companies (see chart). Two of the biggest, Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco, draw at least half of their revenue from emerging economies. Philip Morris’s US-based parent, the Altria Group, in fact spun off Philip Morris in 2008 in part, critics say, so it could tap emerging markets without the interference of tighter US regulations.

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