UN agency tackles spread of tobacco use in third world. Campaign kicks off with World No Smoking Day

The World Health Organization shifts its antismoking efforts into high gear on World No Smoking Day, April 7. WHO has asked smokers to extinguish their cigarettes and newspapers to reject cigarette ads on this day.

Each year in April, WHO, an arm of the United Nations, focuses for one day on a major world health problem. This year, World No Smoking Day serves as the start of a coordinated campaign, according to Robert Masironi, coordinator of WHO's program on smoking and health.

The organization will establish in the next few months a major new program to handle the antismoking fight. It will be called the Tobacco or Health program, to emphasize that international health problems are caused by cigarettes, snuff, and chewing tobacco.

According to Mr. Masironi, there is a growing need to focus attention on developing countries, which are being treated by the tobacco industry as new markets.

Masironi agrees that urbanization is contributing to the increase in smokers in developing countries. WHO figures show a sharp increase in cigarette consumption in these countries from 1971 to 1981, the most recent figures available. Incomplete data indicate that since 1981, smoking has risen steadily in the third world.

In Latin America alone, tobacco consumption rose by 24 percent. During the same period it rose by 4 percent in North America.

WHO's antismoking budget totals about $2 million. That compares, he notes, with $2 billion spent in 1985 on advertising by the tobacco industry - twice the expenditure that year of the US National Cancer Institute.

The WHO money is spent on a variety of projects, including studies which look at the economics of tobacco and related diseases in Brazil, Thailand, and Egypt. Such topics have been studied in the US, but they are new elsewhere.

The issue of smoking is complicated in many countries by the importance to the local economy of the tobacco crop.

Depressed world markets have provoked an overall decline in the crop, but governments in some developing countries still see it as a valuable source of foreign currency. Tobacco is mainly an export crop in Malawi and Zimbabwe. But in other countries, most tobacco is for home consumption. In India, for example 80-90 percent is for the internal market, according to the WHO.

``But as smokers get more sophisticated - thanks to advertising - they want American blends. So while the exported crop appears to bring in hard cash, in fact, imports of American cigarettes are going up.'' Masironi said.

WHO concentrates on making specific recommendations to governments and nongovernment agencies to encourage a smoke-free environment. These include:

Ensure the protection of non-smokers from passive smoke in public areas.

Protect children from taking up smoking.

Keep health care workers and health centers free of smoke.

Help smokers avoid diversifying into other tobacco habits.

Include the word ``addictive'' on tobacco product health warnings.

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