The number of men who smoke and use tobacco has stopped rising and is on the turn for the first time, marking a shift in a global epidemic that has killed tens of millions of people over decades, according to a World Health Organization report.

The change in global smoking trends shows that governments' efforts to control tobacco are working "to save lives, protect health, beat tobacco", the WHO said.

It promised to work closely with countries to maintain the downward trend.

Smoking causes lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses and is a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases such as stroke and heart disease, as well as for mouth, throat and other types of cancer.

Every year, more than eight million people die from tobacco use, according to WHO data.

"For many years now we had witnessed a steady rise in the number of males using deadly tobacco products. But now, for the first time, we are seeing a decline in male use, driven by governments being tougher on the tobacco industry," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's Director-General, said in astatement about the report's findings.

More than 7 million of those deaths are from direct tobacco use while around 1.2 million are due to non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke.

In 2018, some 60 million fewer people around the world smoked or used tobacco compared to 2000, the WHO's report said, with the overall number of tobacco users falling to 1.337 billion people globally in 2018 from 1.397 billion in 2000.

"Fewer people are using tobacco, which is a major step for global public health," said Vinayak Prasad, head of WHO's tobacco control unit.

This decline had previously largely been driven by fewer women and girls smoking, the WHO said - with the number of male tobacco users rising by around 40 million to 1.093 billion between 2000 and 2018.

But this latest report showed the number of male tobacco users has stopped growing and is projected to decline.

By 2020, the report said, there will be 10 million fewer tobacco users overall - male and female - than in 2018, and by 2025, that number will drop by another 27 million people.

Other key findings of the report included:

  • Children: Approximately 43 million children (aged 13-15) used tobacco in 2018 (14 million girls and 29 million boys).
  • Women: The number of women using tobacco in 2018 was 244 million. By 2025, there should be 32 million fewer women tobacco users. Most gains are being made in low- and middle-income countries. Europe is the region making the slowest progress in reducing tobacco use among females.
  • Asian trends: WHO's South East Asian Region has the highest rates of tobacco use, of more than 45% of males and females aged 15 years and over, but the trend is projected to decline rapidly to similar levels seen in the European and Western Pacific regions of around 25% by 2025. The Western Pacific Region, including China, is projected to overtake South East Asia as the region with the highest average rate among men.
  • Trends in the Americas: 15 countries in the Americas are on track to reach the 30% tobacco use reduction target by 2030, making it the best performing of WHO’s six regions.
  • Policy action: more and more countries are implementing effective tobacco control measures, which are having the desired effect of reducing tobacco use. Tobacco taxes not only help reduce tobacco consumption and health-care costs, but also represent a revenue stream for financing for development in many countries.

The WHO global tobacco report covers use of cigarettes, pipes, cigars, waterpipes, smokeless tobacco products such as bidis and cheroots, and heated tobacco products