Air pollution killed more Indians than smoking in 2017: Everything you need to know about this reality check

A global study released on Wednesday, April 3, found that in 2017, air pollution killed more people in India than smoking. Air pollution is the country’s third leading cause of death, and 1.2 million (12 lakh) people died in 2017, from exposure to air pollution alone.

Global air pollution is now a greater public health risk than malnutrition or poor exercise regimes. Smoking and tobacco-related deaths closely follow pollution. Globally, air pollution is the fifth leading risk factor for death. Increasingly, people die more often from exposure to air pollution than malaria.

“Worldwide, air pollution reduced life expectancy by an average of 20 months in 2017, a global impact rivaling that of smoking. Lost life rises to over two years and six months for children born in South Asia (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan) where air pollution is at its worst”, says the report.

Although China has made some progress, the air quality in South Asia has worsened overall, causing adverse health issues. In fact, the South Asian region (especially Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan) is home to the world’s most polluted cities.


The State of Global Air report is a collaborative global study conducted by Health Effects Institute and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation with inputs from experts at the University of British Columbia and University of Texas, Austin.

The study focuses on three different sources of air pollution: fine particle exposure, ozone exposure, and household air pollution.

Fine particle in air pollution (PM2.5) refers to “airborne particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in aerodynamic diameter.”

These particles are easy to inhale and can even enter the bloodstream. They’re found in dust, soot, smoke, construction sites, and unpaved roads. For context, a single strand of human hair is usually 70 micrometers in diameter.

For ozone exposure, scientists measure the concentration of the gas at ground level. When the gas is in the stratosphere, it acts as a protector against the sun’s UV rays. However, when it is in the troposphere or ground level, it behaves like a greenhouse gas and pollutant.

Household air pollution is measured by observing how much fine particulate matter is released from the solid fuels people cook with such as coal, peat, charcoal, and wood.

This year, the report focused on assessing the impact of pollution on life expectancy. It also studied the degree to which air pollution increases the risk for type-2 diabetes.

State of air pollution in India and its South Asian neighbours

The 2019 State of Global Air report found that air pollution is one of the top three killers in the country, following dietary risks and high blood pressure. Household air pollution (HAP) is the tenth most dangerous public health issue as over 4,81,700 people died from it.

The report also found that only 15% of the Indian population lives in areas where the air quality is below the acceptable pollution concentration levels prescribed by the World Health Organisation.

Due to the high air pollution levels, Indians’ life expectancy at birth is reduced by two and a half years, said the report. Air pollution also causes Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which includes asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema, diabetes, heart disease, lung cancer, and stroke.

49% of Indians died from COPD, 33% from lung cancer, 22% from diabetes, 22% from ischemic heart disease, and 15% from stroke—all attributed to the poor air quality in the country.

As Thailand prepares to host the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit for finance ministers and central bank governors, concerns of high levels of air pollution have sprung up once again.

Although the country’s smog and dust levels did not provoke a change in schedule, the officials will be provided with face masks for extra protection.

Head of Climate Change Data Center at Chiang Mai University Sate Sampattagul told Reuters, “The smog problem in nine northern provinces is due to agriculture burning in forests, which happens every year.”

He added that pollution is especially alarming this year because of a drought and increased illegal burning activity. In the coming weeks, some ASEAN sub-committees will discuss haze pollution.

Troublingly, the report found that India and China together account for more than half of the world’s pollution-related deaths. China is tackling the issue with aggressive reforms such as banning fireworks entirely. Now, it has pollution levels lower than Pakistan as well.

However, India’s pollution levels are steadily and steeply increasing.

The graph below shows that the number of air pollution-related deaths in India alone, is higher than the entire South East Asian region and very close to the figures in East Asia.

Achieving SDGs to tackle air pollution

Of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), climate action, sustainable cities and communities, and clean and affordable energy are three that will address air pollution.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stresses the importance of progress keeping in mind the health of the environment. Hence, utilising smoke-free sources of energy is crucial.

“Investing in solar, wind, and thermal power, improving energy productivity, and ensuring energy for all is vital if we are to achieve SDG7 (affordable and clean energy) by 2030”, says the UNDP.

However, climate change doesn’t work in isolation. In January, a leading British medical journal, The Lancet, published a report linking undernutrition, climate change, and obesity.

The Lancet report found that all three pandemics—malnutrition, climate change, and obesity, impact each other simultaneously.

High income countries’ harmful and polluting food processing systems lead to high obesity levels. On the other hand, food insecurity is perpetuated by extreme climate changes like drought or floods.

Therefore, it is doubly important for India to address growing levels of inequality along with the rising levels of air pollution. Other SDGs include reducing societal inequalities, which should be tackled alongside climate change.

Policy approaches in India

The government has already tried to tackle the country’s dismal air quality. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has adopted the odd-even scheme three times to tackle air pollution in the city.

Under the scheme, odd-numbered cars were only allowed to drive on weekdays between 8 am and 8 pm. Public transit services were increased and violators of the scheme were fined Rs 2,000.

Experts found that although pollution levels dropped only slightly, traffic in Delhi improved, which helps cars to emit less fumes than when stagnant. The National Green Tribunal has also asked the Delhi government to prioritise pollution control. AAP Spokesperson Sanjay Singh has said that pollution management needs to be a continuous, long-term effort.

Tackling personal vehicles is an crucial way of addressing congestion as well as air pollution in Indian cities; tackling these twin problems helps improve the quality of urban life. India plans to shift to 100% electric cars by 2030, said Minister for Environment Dr. Harsh Vardhan.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Indians can only burst fire crackers for two hours during Diwali and one hour during Christmas and New Year, in an effort to curb pollution. The apex court even asked online sellers like Amazon and Flipkart not to sell crackers that don’t meet legal restrictions in India.

Cleaning up India’s air in the coming times

In January, the government established the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), which is a five-year-plan seeking to promote collaboration between ministries and local authorities to reduce PM2.5 by 20 to 30%. From increasing monitoring stations to increasing investment in technology, the NCAP plan will be instrumental to India moving forward.

In its election manifesto, the Congress has pledged to fight air pollution, as well.

The party promised to strengthen the NCAP, protect coastal zones and fishing communities, formulate waste management plans, and pass new legislation to establish an independent and transparent Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), like the EPA in the U.S.

The Congress also said it will work with local communities and authorities to ensure mutual benefits such as, clean energy sources and wildlife preservation. It even promised to include “green budgeting” in the annual budget.

Delhi BJP Chief Manoj Tewari has said that the BJP manifesto will also address the country’s pollution crisis.

Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius

Air PollutionEnvironmentNCAPSustainable developmentUN Global Sustainable Development Goals