Washington, April 7 (RFE/RL) -- A Polish physician and anti-smoking crusader says Eastern Europe is in the midst of a great health catastrophe due to the region's high rate of smoking.
Witold Zatonski, director of Warsaw's Curie Memorial Cancer Center, says the former socialist countries of Europe have the highest death rate from smoking in the world and the situation is poised to become even worse.
As it stands now, the World Health Organization estimated that the death toll in the region was about 700,000 in 1995. In Russia alone, an estimated 280,000 people now die annually from smoking, most as a result of either heart disease or cancer. That is a smoking-related death rate more than three times the global average.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Zatonski said the situation in the region is worsening due largely to the aggressive and effective marketing push into the region by American tobacco companies.
Zatonski says he is dismayed by the "sophisticated ways" of promoting and advertising American cigarettes in the region, including strategies that target women and children in particular.
Zatonski says some billboards in Poland sponsored by the American tobacco firm RJ Reynolds -- the makers of Camel cigarettes -- even feature children, something that would be illegal in the United States.
Says Zatonski: "I love America and I don't have anything against free trade. But I don't think tobacco is something we need in Eastern Europe. And we need to stop this from getting into the hands of our children."
Zatonski says that about 10,000 children in Eastern Europe start smoking every day.
(In the U.S., smoking rates for young people are also climbing. A report released last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that smoking among American high school students rose by nearly a third between 1991 and 1997.)
Says Zatonski: "It is not just a current problem, but it [will be] a problem for us for many years if we do not put a stop to it."
Former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer says he is "outraged" by the marketing methods being used by American tobacco companies in the region.
Palmer, who is himself an anti-smoking activist and a businessman, told RFE/RL that over a billion dollars every year is being spent by American tobacco firms in the region and that it is having a "very dramatic effect."
Says Palmer: "They are wrapping the American flag around these death sticks. These things of addiction and death. It is a real outrage....I think this is immoral, and as a businessman, unethical."
Experts say part of the reason for the aggressive push into Eastern Europe by American tobacco companies is due to legal problems and a steady decline in the smoking rate among adults in the U.S.
Last summer, the tobacco companies tentatively agreed to a multi-million dollar settlement with the U.S. legal and public health establishment.
The settlement, which must still be approved by the U.S. Congress and signed by the president, provides terms under which the tobacco companies agree to pay about $368.5 billion to various state and public health funds, openly acknowledge that tobacco is an addictive substance, permit substantial federal control over their products, and abide by numerous restrictions on their advertising.
However, the settlement does not include limitations or conditions on the sale of U.S. tobacco products abroad. Many industry analysts say this is exactly the loophole through which the firms will finance a large part of the settlement.
U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) is now trying to legislate what the settlement left out. Last week, McCain introduced the nation's first comprehensive anti-smoking bill for debate in the U.S. Senate.
Palmer is leading a group of health coalitions which are urging the U.S. Congress to add provisions to the legislation, including prohibiting tobacco companies from advertising their products to minors abroad, and obtaining money from the American tobacco firms to establish anti-smoking centers in the region, including Russia and Ukraine.
Palmer says the American tobacco companies are using the region's fascination with the West to help sell cigarettes.
Says Palmer: "The tobacco companies are basically saying if you want to be American, you should smoke American."
As an example, Zatonski says that in Poland, L & M-manufactured cigarettes are labeled as "really American" and free sample promotions are being expanded, another advertising tactic forbidden in the United States.
Zatonski says one of the biggest challenges facing the region is educating people about the dangers of smoking.
He says countries in the region need help from the West to teach politicians, doctors and legislators how to communicate the dangers of tobacco and assist in changing peoples' behavior to reflect a more healthy lifestyle.
Says Zatonski: "This is something we must teach our politicians -- that we will not really be able to improve our economy if we do not improve our lifestyles and our health."