For the first time the number of males using tobacco is on the decline, indicating a powerful shift in the global tobacco epidemic and that government-led action can protect communities from tobacco and save lives, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.

During nearly the past two decades, overall global tobacco use has fallen from 1.397 billion in 2000 to 1.337 billion in 2018, or by nearly 60 million people, according to the WHO global report on trends in prevalence of tobacco use 2000-2025 third edition.

This has been largely driven by reductions in the number of females using these products, from 346 million in 2000 down to 244 million in 2018, or a fall over around 100 million.

However, over the same period, male tobacco use had risen by around 40 million, from 1.050 billion in 2000 to 1.093 billion in 2018, accounting for about 82 percent of the world's current 1.337 billion tobacco users.

The positive side was that the number of male tobacco users has stopped growing and is projected to decline by more than one million by 2020 compared with 2018 levels, and by five million by 2025, according to the WHO.

"Declines in tobacco use amongst males mark a turning point in the fight against tobacco," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "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. WHO will continue working closely with countries to maintain this downward trend."

Despite such gains, progress in meeting the global target set by governments to cut tobacco use by 30 percent by 2025 remains off track. Based on current progress, a 23-percent reduction will be achieved by 2025, as only 32 countries are currently on track to reach the 30 percent reduction target.

The WHO suggests that the projected decline in tobacco use among males, who represent the overwhelming majority of tobacco users, can be built on and used to accelerate efforts to reach to the global target.

Currently more than eight million people die from tobacco use every year, according to WHO statistics. More than seven 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.