Smoking: WHO Urges Action to Stop Rising Deaths Among Women

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday urged countries to adopt stringent measures, including a ban on public smoking, to stop a potentially dramatic rise in tobacco-related deaths among women. The Geneva-based UN agency warned that tobacco-related diseases were on the rise among women, especially young ones, because of exposure to second-hand smoke and "aggressive" tobacco marketing.

"Countries must adopt a wide range of tobacco control measures, including bans on public smoking and bans on tobacco marketing and promotion if they want to avert this epidemic," the WHO said in a press release. About 12 percent of women smoke compared to about 48 percent of men, according to global estimates, the agency said in a new booklet released a day before World No Tobacco Day.

WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland highlighted the finding that more than 60 percent of men in Asia were smokers, resulting in millions of women and children being exposed to passive smoking. "Second-hand smoke is an important women's issue," she said in a press release. "New evidence shows that parental smoking contributes to higher rates of sudden infant death syndrome as well as asthma, bronchitis, colds and pneumonia in children," she added. Under Brundtland, the UN agency has made tobacco-related deaths one of its priorities.

It is hosting negotiations to draw up the world's first public health treaty to curb the currently four million annual deaths tied to tobacco use, and hopes to have the treaty completed by next year or 2003. WHO member states hold talks every six months, however the last round in Geneva early this month wound up with little sign of progress. The UN health agency accuses tobacco companies of using "misleading labels" such as mild or light and false images of good health and fitness, beauty and being slim to appeal to women.

Sponsorship of beauty contests or sports, arts or music events also influence girls to use tobacco, WHO said. The WHO booklet said chewing tobacco, smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke while pregnant carries a higher risk of miscarriage or giving birth to a low weight baby prone to infection. Other risks for female smokers include a higher chance of earlier menopause, lower bone density and delays in conceiving. But it warned that many women and girls were unaware of the possible health risks and more needed to be done to educate them.

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