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Tobacco habit targets women

by Gustavo Capdevila

Geneva, 30 May (IPS) - The tobacco epidemic is now shifting towards women, especially young women in developing countries, with serious consequences for their health, income, unborn children and family, warned the United Nations health agency in a report released Wednesday.

Nations must take concerted action to control tobacco consumption, otherwise, the number of smoking-related deaths among women will rise drastically, states the World Health Organisation (WHO), in a study titled “Women and the Tobacco Epidemic: Challenges for the 21st Century.”

Tobacco use causes four million unnecessary deaths each year, an average of 11,000 per day. “If current growth rates continue, by 2020, tobacco use will be responsible for about 10% of the global burden of disease,” cautioned Gro Harlem Brundtland, the WHO director-general.

“Tobacco causes similar heath problems in women as it does in men: lung cancer, heart disease, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, infertility, and a wide range of other diseases,” she added.

According to WHO expert Judith Mackay, “while the epidemic of tobacco use among men is in slow decline, the epidemic among women will not reach its peak until well into the 21st century.”

Because of this, pointed out Brundtland, a “golden opportunity” exists for preventing an expansion of tobacco consumption and future premature deaths in the world’s regions where use is still relatively low among women and girls.

Mackay, who serves as Chair for the WHO’s Strategy Advisory Committee for the Tobacco Free Initiative, explained that eight percent of women in developing countries and about 15% in industrialised countries currently smoke cigarettes.  In addition, women in India and several other countries use chewing tobacco.

But the dominant trend indicates that the percentages of women smokers in the developing South and the industrialised North both will rise to around 20% by 2025 unless “innovative, robust and sustained initiatives” are urgently adopted.

If this upward curve continues, the number of women smokers in the world will jump from 187 million today to 532 million in 2025, predicted Mackay.

With this marked increase in the number of women smokers, there will be enormous consequences for the health, income, unborn children and family of each one worldwide, cautioned Mackay as she presented the report.

The WHO study outlines that the number of women smokers will rise, especially in developing countries, though for different reasons.

The combined female population of developing countries will rise from the current 2.5 billion to 3.5 billion by 2025. As a result, “ even if the prevalence (of tobacco use) remains low, the absolute numbers of women smokers will increase,” said the WHO expert.

Another contributing factor to smoking among the female population is that the purchasing power of girls and women continues to expand, making cigarettes increasingly affordable for them.

“The social and cultural constraints which previously prevented many women from smoking, such as in China and in Muslim countries, are weakening in some places,” says the WHO.

The growth of the smoking trend among women is also in part due to the fact that women-specific health programmes, especially those dedicated to aid in quitting the tobacco habit, are practically non-existent in developing countries.

In developing countries, as much as 48% of men are smokers, meaning that many women are passive smokers, particularly at home. The predicted increase in the number of women smokers will expose more and more children to second-hand smoke.

According to the WHO, governments in developing countries “may be less aware of the harmful effects of tobacco use and are often preoccupied with other health issues; they mostly see tobacco as a problem confined to men.”

Another contributing factor to the rise in the number of women smokers is that the tobacco industry is “targeting women with well-funded and alluring marketing campaigns.” The big tobacco companies “cleverly link the emancipation of women with smoking,” commented Mackay.

The WHO study acknowledges that in some cases the high incidence of tobacco consumption among members of women’s movements has made anti-smoking campaigns unpopular with those groups.

The cigarette addiction of “successful and emancipated women” underscores the tobacco industry’s victory in marketing their product as “liberating”, according to specialists Mabel Bianco, Margarita Haglund, Yayori Matsui and Nobuko Nakano.

The four activists observe in an article included in “Women and the Tobacco Epidemic”, that “in recent years, the international women’s movement has begun to join forces with the tobacco control movement.” And Mackay commented that “women’s organisations and women’s magazines are now recognising that tobacco use is a feminist issue and that they need to take an appropriate role.”

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