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WHO Bulletin: Women And The Smoking Epidemic

March 2, 2011

Researchers on Tuesday said that millions of women in developing countries will live with the threat of disease and early death in the coming decades due to tobacco, stemming from their rising economic and political status.

The study, published in the World Health Organization (WHO) Bulletin, analyzed 74 countries and found that men are five times more likely to smoke than women in countries where women have lower rates of female empowerment, such as China, Indonesia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

In countries like the United States, Australia, Canada and Sweden, where female empowerment is relatively high, the gap is small and women tend to smoke almost as much as men do.

The findings showed there is great need for governments to act quickly to cut smoking rates among women, especially in less-developed countries, said Douglas Bettcher, director of the WHO Tobacco Free Initiative.

“The tobacco epidemic is still in its early stages in many countries but is expected to worsen,” Bettcher told Reuters in a statement. “Strong tobacco control measures such as bans on tobacco advertising are needed to prevent the tobacco industry from targeting women.”

The WHO describes tobacco as “one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced.” The annual death toll associated with tobacco use is more than 5 million, according to experts, and it could rise beyond eight million by 2030 unless action is taking to curb smoking.

The study found that in China, for example, 61 percent of men are reported to be current smokers, with only 4.2 percent of those being women, while in many rich nations the ratio gap between men and women smokers is nearly non-existent.

The United Nations Development Program measures women empowerment using data such as representation in parliament, voting rights and comparisons of male and female income.

“Our study makes a strong case for implementing gender-specific tobacco control activities … such as more higher tobacco taxes, more prominent graphic health warnings, smoke-free laws, and advertising and promotion bans,” said Geoffrey Fong from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who led the study.

Coauthor of the study, Sara Hitchman, said authorities should investigate “the ways in which the tobacco industry is capitalizing on societal changes to target women, such as marketing cigarettes to women as a symbol of emancipation.”

A useful step could be to monitor how price and tax measures affect women’s choices in taking up smoking in countries where tobacco is not yet widely used by them, said the two authors of the study.

“Further research into patterns of uptake could help governments take more effective action and reduce adoption rates for smoking among women in the future,” Hitchman said.

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