First of two features on recent reports by the World Health Organization on major threats to public health. The first feature focuses on the danger that tobacco smoke poses to the health of children. The second feature focuses on the danger of air pollution.
London, 29 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A new World Health Organization (WHO) report says the health of almost half the world's children is endangered by the tobacco smoke they are exposed to by parents and others who use cigarettes, cigars and pipes.
The situation is reported to be particularly serious in Central and Eastern Europe and in the states of the former Soviet Union where the rate of tobacco smoking -- and lung cancer -- is significantly higher than in Western Europe or North America.
The report, issued in London this month at the WHO's third ministerial conference on environment and health, says 700 million children regularly breathe air polluted by tobacco smoke.
The report says children exposed to tobacco smoke experience a range of health problems. They include pneumonia and bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory problems, middle ear disease, sudden infant death syndrome (cot deaths) and childhood cancers. Women who smoke during pregnancy can have smaller and less developed babies.
David Gee is a Copenhagen-based author who is active within the WHO and the European Environment Agency. He has focused extensively on the link between children's health and the environment. He says children, infants and developing fetuses are much more vulnerable to poisons like tobacco smoke than adults. Gee spoke by telephone with RFE/RL:
"They are much more vulnerable because of their relatively immature biological development at the age when they get exposed. Here we are talking, by the way, from the conception onwards. A lot of damage seems to be laid down for some of these chemicals, including environmental tobacco smoke in the fetus stage, really, when things are developing in rather delicate ways, and small amounts of anything seem to disturb the development pattern."
Almost half of all children worldwide live in the home of a smoker. Although the health risks may seem modest, the overall numbers are so high that, according to the WHO report, "the total burden of illness is substantial." The reports says that some 70 percent of children who have two smoking parents have a higher incidence of many medical problems, including croup, bronchitis and pneumonia. If one parent smokes, they are 30 percent more likely to have these medical conditions than are children of non-smokers.
The report says that infants of mothers who smoke have almost five times the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. It also says childhood exposure to tobacco smoke can lead later to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and neurobehavioral impairment.
The WHO study, by some of the world's leading experts on the link between tobacco and health, finds that passive smoking, once seen as a western phenomenon, is now affecting developing nations. In poorer areas, such as China and India, tobacco smoke exacerbates other problems, such as the effects of air pollution. The WHO wants to see bans on smoking in schools, nurseries, health centers and other public places used by children.
David Gee says there is growing awareness among scientists of the threat to children from tobacco smoke and other low-level toxic pollution, a danger that they say may have been underestimated.
"So for various reasons, to do with their uniqueness as a biological species, as it were, [children] are far more vulnerable to levels of toxins that would not be harmful to an adult. And many of our standards as to how much [pollution] we can expose people to are based on adult data rather than children data or infant data, or fetus data. So there is this increasing awareness."
The WHO now plans to introduce a treaty that will call for international regulations on tobacco advertising. It would also require limits to be put on places where smoking is allowed, and would seek to raise the taxation on tobacco products in all countries.
WHO officials say that the treaty should be in place by 2002 or 2003. They say it is a necessary step in dealing with what they call a "mounting epidemic of smoking", particularly in the developing world.