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Wednesday, October 21, 1998 Published at 18:58 GMT 19:58 UK

WHO declares war on tobacco firms

Tobacco use is growing fastest in the developing world

Smoking is set to become the world's biggest killer over the next 20 years.

The BBC's Claire Doole reports
By 2020 tobacco will be responsible for more deaths than HIV, tuberculosis, road accidents, murder and suicide put together, according to a report published by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO released the report as it launched a campaign to bring tobacco use under stricter control.

It wants to avert what it calls a "smoking epidemic" by creating a new international convention to set global standards on issues such as tobacco tax, smuggling, advertising and commercial sponsorship.

Joint efforts

WHO director-general Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland said: "Tobacco control cannot succeed solely through the efforts of individual governments.

"We need an international response to an international problem."

It is the first time the WHO has decided to use its right as a United Nations agency to draw up an international convention.

Its anti-tobacco task force, the Tobacco Free Initiative will develop the convention's framework.

The legislation will also tackle issues including international trade, package labelling and encouraging alternatives to tobacco farming.

Developing nations

The WHO says that the number of smokers is rising faster in developing countries than in westernised countries.

[ image: Tobacco crops support the economies of many poorer countries]
Tobacco crops support the economies of many poorer countries
By the mid-2020s, it says, 85% of all smokers will come from the world's poorer countries.

Dr Brundtland said: "It is one of the major global burdens of disease and death, and we have to take it seriously.

"It is affecting the developing world at increasing rates - consumption is increasing and marketing is increasing."

However, many of the WHO's 190 member states' economies depend on tobacco exports.

Zimbabwe's health minister Dr Timothy Stemps welcomed the initiative, but called for a guarantee of compensation.

"You cannot simply wish away one-fifth of your annual earnings, so there has to be some compensatory mechanism," he said.

"Secondly, there must be a transitional arrangement whereby there is world investment in directing farmers to crops that are at least as profitable," he added.

Financial interests

The industry itself is well-established in many such countries.

Tobacco companies often finance social and cultural projects.

John Carlyle, of the British Tobacco Manufacturing Association, said the companies were essential to many local economies.

He said: "In many cases they have taken over local companies, they've held on to or provided jobs.

"They've brought jobs into the third world, where leaf producers are looking for markets for their products.

"Most of these economies are heavily dependent on tobacco leaf."

The WHO said it was keen to take economic factors into consideration, but health was the central issue.

Tobacco causes 3.5 million deaths annually, and this figure is set to rise to around 10 million during the 2020s or 2030s, it says.

Of these, seven million deaths will occur in developing countries.

The WHO wants countries to take a united stand against the growth of tobacco consumption.

Derek Yach, the Tobacco Free Initiative project manager, said: "We're focusing on ways of addressing tobacco control, the tried and true ways which have been steadfastly used in some countries with success.

"There's nothing fancy about price and taxation increases, yet most countries haven't done it. There is nothing new about calling for advertising bans, yet the vast majority haven't addressed it. We're just not doing it as a world community."

Rising death toll

It is estimated that 200-300 million smokers will die by 2025 if the trend continues.

However, time may be running out for the WHO to make a difference.

Although it hopes the convention framework will be ready in five years, it is likely to take much longer for countries to ratify it.

While some scientific-based conventions have been approved within 10 years, others can take up to 40 years to become law in some countries.

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