Developing countries told 'tax tobacco to save lives'
Poorer countries should consider adopting or raising tobacco taxes to help save lives, a group of leading economists says.
The call comes in a report, published in The Lancet, which says there is a "once in human history" chance to wipe out health disparities between nations.
The authors recommend increased investment in global health to tackle killer diseases.
They suggest alcohol and sugar could also be taxed.
They give China as an example where a 50% tax on tobacco could prevent 20m deaths and generate $20bn over the next 50 years.
The report points to the success of the "4Cs" - China, Chile, Cuba and Costa Rica - in reducing health infections despite starting from low income levels in the 1980s.
'Grand convergence is possible'
The Lancet's Commission on investing in health was chaired by Prof Lawrence Summers, of Harvard University.
Prof Summers, a former chief economist at the World Bank, said: "These countries are all very different. They vary in their social and economic structures.
"There's no single way forward but these countries show what can be achieved.
"In Cuba for example, success in economic growth is less impressive but there's been a commitment to inclusive service delivery in healthcare.
"What all the 4Cs show us is that a grand convergence between different countries, in terms of health disparities, is possible if there's a focus on preventable infections, as well as the health of mothers and children.
"Our report emphasises that tobacco taxation is the single most important public health intervention.
"The developing world will need to have more of an agenda in the future to deal with chronic illness associated with obesity and smoking."
The Commission also calls for a doubling of the amount currently spent on researching and developing vaccines and other health technologies to $6bn annually by the end of this decade.
Prof Summers said: "It is our hope that this report will set a path for the post-Millennium Development Goals challenge.
"We also believe that providing universal healthcare has to be the aspiration everywhere.
"It can begin with broad efforts to provide basic public health measures. Then a country can start offering government-funded health insurance, with benefits rising as the national income increases."
UK international development minister Lynne Featherstone said: "Over the past decade new technologies, cheaper drugs and a major global commitment to improving healthcare in the developing world have all combined to dramatically reduce the number of people dying from preventable diseases in the world's poorest countries.
"As this report shows, our generation now has the opportunity to build on this progress and end the shocking inequality in healthcare that exists across the globe.
"The UK will continue to lead global efforts, investing in the services and technologies that can give millions a healthier future."