Washington, 4 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Three U.S. senators say governments around the world need to take concrete steps to stop millions of children and teenagers from smoking.
Richard Durbin (D-Illinois), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), and Susan Collins (R-Maine) made the statement Wednesday during a press conference in Washington to announce the agenda for the upcoming international conference on children and tobacco.
The conference, scheduled for March 17-19, will be held in Washington and attended by government representatives from more than 30 countries. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine are among the countries from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that will attend the conference.
Durbin said the conference will focus on investigating and discussing options for containing what he called a "global epidemic" of tobacco use and disease. He added that if tobacco companies are successful in addicting new generations of smokers, the health and economic consequences to the world would be severe.
Durbin explained: "We are doing this because we are facing nothing less than a world war here. A war between the tobacco companies, who are trying to addict children around the world, and public health advocates who are trying to step forward and stop this from occurring. I believe that if this war is going to be won, the allies have to come together. And we are going to do that with this international conference."
Durbin said that in many countries, tobacco use among children is rising. He said if current trends continue, more than 250 million children alive today will eventually be killed by tobacco. Overall, the World Health Organization estimates there are currently 1.1 billion smokers in the world today, a figure expected to rise to 1.64 billion by 2025. More people are expected to die from tobacco-related illness over the next 30 years than from the combined toll of AIDS, tuberculosis, automobile accidents, maternal mortality, homicide, and suicide combined.
In a statement released to reporters at the press conference, the senators said tobacco imposes enormous economic costs on countries. They added that global costs are so large that even conservative estimates put them at an amount that exceeds total current health expenditures in all developing countries combined.
For example, the statement says that in the U.S., health care expenditures caused directly by smoking totaled $50 billion in 1993. It adds that caring for tobacco-related disease displaces funding from other public health priorities such as immunizations, communicable disease control and child health programs.
The statement also said that despite the revenue generated from tobacco taxes in many countries, according to a recent study conducted by World Bank economists, "the use of tobacco results in a global net loss of $200 billion per year, with half of these losses occurring in developing countries."
Durbin said delegates at the conference will work hard to develop a global strategy to defeat the tobacco companies. He said participants at the conference will focus on measures to educate children about the dangers of smoking, prevent them from gaining access to cigarettes, and passing laws restricting advertisements for tobacco products.
The senators were particularly critical of the world's three largest tobacco companies -- American-owned Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco companies, and the jointly owned, British American Tobacco -- saying they now each own or lease plants in at least 50 countries. The senators added that the global youth market continues to be considered a legitimate target by these companies.
Durbin said the companies' aggressive marketing to youth reflects badly on the United States.
"The U.S. has enjoyed such a positive reputation for generations in promoting public health and saving lives. And now, we are going to be associated with this spread of this deadly addiction to nicotine across the globe."
But the R. J. Reynolds company denies that it encourages young people to smoke.
On its web site on the Internet, there is a special section called "Kids Should Not Smoke." A statement says that R.J. Reynolds urges children not to smoke by offering programs that supplement other youth non-smoking efforts in school, at retail, and in the home. The statement adds that currently, across the nation, such programs have reached more than three million students, 50,000 retailers, and significant numbers of parents who wish to talk to their children about not smoking.