The country with the highest smoking rate — East Timor


If you had flat out asked me this question, what country has the highest smoking rate in the world, I might have said Belarus or Bulgaria, something like that. It’s not an Eastern European country, it’s a county called East Timor.

All right, having to whip out my atlas to see where the hell East Timor is.

East Timor is a tiny nation on the Indonesian island of Timor (but not part of Indonesia, sort of like Papua New Guinea.) It’s only 5,000 square miles and the population is about 1.1 million. It’s separate from Indonesia primarily because it was a longtime Portuguese colony, while most of the rest of Indonesia was colonised by the Dutch.

Anyway, enough geography lessons (reminds me of a really, really bad newspaper editor I once knew who for some mystifying reason decided to write a geography lesson sidebar about Yellowknife, NWT, because a fisherman from Yellowknife drowned in the area. Only problem was, throughout the article, he referred to it as “Yellowfish, NWT.” I had fun sending that article to the Yellowknife newspaper and seeing their angry editorial ripping on ignorant Americans. Anyway, I digress). According to this BBC article, East Timor has an incredible smoking rate of 61 percent among men — that percentage hasn’t been that high in America since about 1960. That’s just a shocking figure.

According to the article:

At the moment the big killer is tuberculosis but Dr Dan Murphy, a Canadian who’s been running a local hospital and clinic in Dili for 20 years, is worried about the future.

Some 80% of the world’s smokers live in developing countries and “young people are learning that what they’re supposed to do to be Western and advanced is to smoke cigarettes,” he says.

“Now we have to change their whole way of thinking and start worrying about tomorrow. I’m afraid we’re going to have to go through a phase of learning the hard lesson that’s been seen throughout poor countries.”

Another interesting part of the story is that East Timor has not seen a big influx of health problems connected to smoking. Why? Because it’s a brand new burgeoning market. Most of that 61 percent of men are young men who have only been smoking a few years. Give it another 10 and 20 years and watch East Timor’s medical infrastructure swamped with middle age men dying of COPD, heart disease and lung cancer.


What East Timor highlights is that the developing world, Third World, whatever you want to call it, is the future of the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry is in the midst of a long, slow decline in North America and western Europe. But, Africa and Asia markets await. Big Tobacco has been drooling over these markets for years (to the point where China very strictly controls western tobacco sales in its country).

These countries tend to be poor and don’t have the resources for tobacco education. Never mind the fact that the tobacco industry created a damn holocaust of death and disease in the West all during the 19th century, now that the West has gotten wise to the evils of tobacco, Big Tobacco wants to export their product to a new, unwitting market. It’s really beyond amoral, it’s just sick.

BTW, the BBC article created a nice infographic about the heaviest smoking countries in the world. I wasn’t far off with Bulgaria, it makes the top 6.

Countries with highest smoking rates

  • Kiribati
  • Macedonia
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Bulgaria
  • Tonga
  • East Timor

Figures for 2012. Source: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, published by JAMA

Kiribati is another country I’ve never heard of. Used to be called the Gilbert Islands.


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