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East: WHO Kicks Off Global No-Tobacco Day

Prague, 29 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Tobacco kills. It's a message the world has heard for over half a century. Yet, every day, thousands of young people from Texas to Tashkent are trying their first cigarette, often precipitating a lifetime of addiction and untimely death.

The fact that tobacco kills, the World Health Organization (WHO) says, is a message worth repeating.

In order to do so, the WHO is sponsoring "No-Tobacco Day" (Sunday May 31), which this year is dedicated to children. Kicking off the campaign earlier this week, the WHO's Deputy Director-General, Dr. Fernando Antezana, said the tobacco epidemic would prematurely claim the lives of some 250 million children and adolescents alive today. Antezana says tobacco use is rising among young people, while the age of smoking initiation is declining.

RFE/RL asked the WHO's Acting Chief of the Tobacco Unit in Geneva, why smoking rates were on the rise. Neil Collishaw attributed the gain to our increasingly global society.

"We're very concerned about increasing tobacco use in many developing countries and countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In other words, the tobacco epidemic is not really being solved but is being moved around from one part of the world to another and, unfortunately, it looks like it is moving from developed countries to developing countries."

The World Health Organization says there are a number of other complex and interacting reasons children and adolescents take up smoking. Often, the WHO says, they mistake smoking for an attribute of independence and a sign of maturity -- an image skillfully built by glossy tobacco advertising and promotional activities. Additionally, in many countries, smoking is considered normal social behavior, tobacco products are inexpensive and easily accessible, and tobacco advertising is prolific.

According to WHO, in order to ensure that the health of children is effectively protected and promoted, tough decisions against tobacco are needed. WHO advocates a total ban on tobacco advertising and the adoption of an international framework convention on tobacco control.

Collishaw indicated that in certain regions, the health consequences of tobacco use are particularly devastating. In the Eastern transitional countries, for example, around 17 percent of all deaths in 1995 were due to tobacco use. That figure is expected to increase, according to the WHO, with tobacco contributing to more than 22 percent of all deaths in the region by the year 2020.

"Generally, throughout the former Soviet Union -- more than 50 percent of men smoke -- and a quarter to a third of women smoke in some (of these) countries, so it is a very high rate of consumption and (there is) a massive move now toward western style of cigarettes (in these countries)."

Beyond the public health domain, tobacco use is a major drain on the world's financial resources. It has been labeled a major threat to sustainable and equitable development. A World Bank study, "The Economic Costs and Benefits of Investing in Tobacco," estimated that the use of tobacco results in a global net loss of 200 thousand million dollars per year, with half of those losses occurring in developing countries.

The same study estimated that smoking prevention is among the most cost-effective of all health interventions, as research shows that tobacco is fast becoming a greater cause of death and disability than any single disease.

Back at the WHO, experts say that as it stands now, we have created an environment where young people receive contradictory and confusing messages about tobacco. Yet, the WHO says, we as a society expect young people to make the right decision for their own health. WHO says it is the responsibility of adults to help young people resist the pressures to use tobacco.

To commemorate "No Tobacco Day," WHO says, it is time for society to make critical decisions that would allow the world's children to grow up "tobacco free."

The "NO-Tobacco Day" also marks a WHO appeal to those who use tobacco to quit for at least 24 hours, as a first step toward breaking their tobacco addiction.

One day of activities will not reverse the epidemic. Still, WHO hopes to provide an opportunity to spotlight successful anti-tobacco efforts already underway or to launch new tobacco control initiatives toward the eventual goal of a smoke-free world.

Adolat Najimova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this piece.