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World: WHO Considering Tobacco Regulation

Cigarette smoking is at the top of the agenda in Geneva this week, where the UN's World Health Organization, or WHO, is holding its annual meeting. RFE/RL correspondent Anita Elash reports that ministers and other top health officials are considering a WHO plan to draft an international treaty that would put strict limits on how tobacco is advertised and sold.

Prague, 19 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The World Health Organization estimates that at least 4 million people a year die from tobacco-related diseases, notably heart disease, strokes, and cancer. It predicts the death toll will more than double in the next 30 years.

WHO spokesman Franklin Apfel says the organization hopes to cut back on the number of smokers -- and therefore the number of smoking-related deaths -- by setting tough international standards:

"Tobacco is not just an issue that relates on a national level, although every nation needs to be concerned. It's being steered and guided by multinational forces which are having a global impact on health."

Apfel says health officials are most concerned about the effect of tobacco advertising. Studies have shown that advertising tends to increase tobacco consumption.

In Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, smoking among women was virtually unheard of until a few years ago. Now, at least 6 percent of women in Central Asia smoke, and the WHO estimates the number is growing by 1 to 2 percent a year. Apfel blames aggressive marketing campaigns by multinational tobacco companies that have recently moved into the countries of the former East Bloc. He says the campaigns are backed by huge budgets and that some of them seek to exploit local yearnings for Western-style freedom. The R.J. Reynolds company, for example, used the slogan "The Taste of Freedom" to promote Winston cigarettes. Apfel says:

"There's aggressive marketing, co-opting notions about democracy and freedom and utilizing just sheer buying power. We know the marketing budget for the Philip Morris [tobacco] company in Kyrgyzstan is $2 million. There are three and a half million people in Kyrgyzstan. You can hardly go to a kiosk or outside restaurant without seeing Marlboro [cigarette advertising] umbrellas. To the largest extent, the colors on the landscape are cigarette advertisements."

The WHO believes it can reduce the number of people smoking by restricting these kinds of campaigns. Apfel says the organization may follow the example set by the European Union, which recently passed legislation prohibiting all cigarette advertising by 2006. The UN health organization is also considering several other anti-tobacco measures, such as requiring manufacturers to label packages with explicit health warnings. It may also try to increase the price of cigarettes by raising tobacco taxes, and it hopes to reduce cross-border tobacco smuggling through the treaty it is now drafting. Countries that sign the projected WHO treaty but don't enforce its provisions could be sanctioned by an international court.

The next step in developing the anti-tobacco measures comes in October, when the WHO will hold public hearings. It hopes to have the treaty in place by 2003.