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Wednesday, October 6, 1999 Published at 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK


Smoking deaths epidemic in developing world

Smoking could kill 200-300 million people in the next 25 years

Smoking is set to cause a cancer epidemic in the developing world, according to the World Health Organisation.

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  • Smoking levels are on the increase in these regions, especially among young people, as tobacco firms are pushing into new markets.

    Their move into the developing world comes as the firms have been stung by a decline in smoking and a series of law suits in the United States.

    By the mid-2020s, the WHO predicts, 85% of all smokers will come from the world's poorer countries.

    [ image:  ]

    If the WHO forecasts are correct, smoking could become the world's biggest killer over the next 20 years, causing more deaths than HIV, tuberculosis, road accidents, murder and suicide put together.

    Rising death toll

    According to the organisation smoking-related diseases are killing 4 million people a year worldwide and that number will rise to 10 million a year in the next 25 years.

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

    [ image: There are many tobacco farms in the developing world]
    There are many tobacco farms in the developing world
    Rising death tolls are also expected in countries such as China and Japan, where between 50% and 60 % of adults are now smokers.

    WHO director-general Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland believes tobacco companies are trying "to build up the market in the young groups in order to get as many as possible addicted before they are even grown-ups."

    The organisation hopes to avert a "smoking epidemic" with an international convention to impose taxes on cigarettes worldwide and introduce global standards to restrict tobacco advertising, including on satellite television and the Internet.

    At a recent conference, 30 health ministers and other senior health officials from every country in the Western Hemisphere agreed to back the proposed Convention on Tobacco Control.

    The draft should be ready by 2003.

    Financial interests

    But many developing countries fear they will lose foreign investment if they clamp down on smoking.

    But the health arguments are strong. According to the chief of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), George A.O. Alleyne, smoking is now the main preventable cause of death in the Americas - killing more than 600,000 people a year.

    One in three people over 15 in the region smokes, he says.

    But he admits that some tobacco-growing nations and companies are reluctant to tackle the problem.

    He said "economic interests" in some member states were "among the principal factors that hinder the task".

    [ image: The tobacco industry has invested heavily in the developing world]
    The tobacco industry has invested heavily in the developing world
    His report noted that smoking is encouraged by the low cost of cigarettes - between 50 cents and $1.30 a packet in Latin America - and by the lack of information about the damage it causes.

    Tobacco cultivation averages 25,000 acres in Peru, Colombia, Chile and Guatemala, more than 50,000 acres in Argentina and Cuba, and more than 700,000 acres in Brazil.

    Brazil is the world's third-largest tobacco producer and exports almost $1bn worth a year.

    However, Brazil, Chile and Costa Rica have passed laws and decrees creating smoke-free environments, compulsory warning labels on cigarette packs and controls on advertising targeting children.

    PAHO official Enrique Madrigal says that multinational tobacco firms and national tobacco companies in countries such as Brazil have targeted young people to boost sales.

    "There is a serious threat that the tobacco industries are focusing directly upon the developing countries with all their guns," he warns.

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

    And the chairman of British American Tobacco says the WHO is attempting to impose Western anti-smoking prejudices on countries where malnutrition and AIDS are greater health concerns.

    Local investment

    Tobacco companies have been looking to vast markets in developing countries as a way to help make up for the loss of US smokers and a $206bn settlement with US states.

    The British Tobacco Manufacturing Association says the companies are essential to many local economies, as they have taken over local companies and provide jobs.

    Tobacco companies point out that many of them finance social and cultural projects.

    According to Richard Tate, president of the International Tobacco Growers' Association (ITGA), tobacco growing and processing provides 33 million people with their livelihood, mostly in the developing world.

    But the WHO hopes to convince its members that the alleged economic benefits of tobacco are "illusory and misleading".

    In April, a WHO report - Supporting the Tobacco Industry is Bad Economics - claimed that health costs associated with smoking more than offset the economic benefits of tobacco cultivation and ultimately have "a negative bearing on the economy of the region".

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