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Monday, 18 March, 2002, 10:01 GMT
Greece faces lung cancer 'epidemic'
Teenagers smoking
Children must be saved from smoking, say experts
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By Daniel Howden in Athens

Greece is facing a lung cancer epidemic, experts have told an Athens conference.

Cases have risen 50% over the last 30 years, and a new wave of victims is expected, they say.

"This is a public health time bomb," Professor Panayiotis Behrakis told the BBC.

"There is a generation of smokers who are going to die whatever we do, but we have to sound the alarm to help children now in school."

There is a wave of lung cancer victims coming over the next decade

Professor Panayiotis Behrakis
Speakers at the conference, held on Friday, revealed that lung cancer claimed the lives of more young men and women of all ages than in any other European country, with 5-6,000 people dying every year.

"We are observing unusually high incidences of lung cancer in young adults. There is a wave of lung cancer victims coming over the next decade - we don't know how many but we are looking at a massive increase," warned Professor Behrakis, head of the national pneumonology society.

A study published by the European Respiratory Society in November 2001 confirmed what many Greek academics have been warning, that smoking among women is rising dramatically and the consequent death toll is climbing with it.

'Socially acceptable'

"We haven't taken measures to combat smoking and advertising is uncontrolled, so smoking has remained socially acceptable and continued to rise," said Mr Behrakis.

Cigarette advertising is banned on radio and television and all promotion and packaging carry EU-standard health warnings. There are no restrictions on tobacco sales to minors.

Doctor treating cancer patient
Cancer figures are now the worst in Europe, the experts heard
Smoking is still common in public spaces and in the workplace, while Greek cinemas have retained the old-style intermission to enable smokers to make it through a two-hour screening.

Greece is the world's seventh largest tobacco producer.

The industry is supported by EU subsidies and proposals for age restrictions and further advertising bans are opposed by powerful business and farming lobbies.

"The administration has aligned itself with huge vested interests and no one wants to risk offending them," claimed Mr Behrakis.

Children 'targeted'

"The industry is deliberately targeting pre-school children with cartoon-style commercials. They are being primed with positive images of smoking to make them take it up around the age of 14."

Experts claimed widespread ignorance over the health risks associated with smoking was the result of poor education and appealed for a broad-based campaign to promote a healthier lifestyle to school children.

The conference also sought to highlight the health risk posed by pollution levels, only days after a global study by research company William M. Mercer rated Athens as Europe's dirtiest city.

Asthma increase

Conference organiser Nina Mangina pointed to an alarming rise in the incidence of asthma in young children.

Mrs Mangina indicated that of the three main sources of air pollution - industry, air conditioners and vehicles - vehicles were now the dominant source.

A US study last year revealed that high levels of metropolitan pollution could increase the risk of lung cancer by as much as 20%.

"We need to undertake long-term studies of our own in order to be able to provide the statistics the public needs," said Mr Behrakis.

"An advertising ban is a vital first step in a serious public health campaign to get the message out there to parents whose children are at risk."

See also:

12 Mar 02 | Health
'I survived lung cancer'
19 Mar 02 | Health
UK lagging behind on lung cancer
15 Mar 02 | Scotland
Concern over lung cancer death rate
28 May 99 | Health
French health mystery
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