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Global Survey Finds Secondhand Smoke Threatens Children World Wide

A new global survey published by the World Health Organization and collaborating American and Canadian Health Agencies finds that young people are facing increasing health risks from secondhand smoke. Health experts meeting at the 2006 International Cancer & Tobacco Control Conferences this month, [July 10-14] in Washington say the survey is a useful tool to understand the impact on children of secondhand smoke -- also called passive smoke or environmental tobacco smoke.

The Global Youth Tobacco Survey focused on 13-15 year olds in 132 countries. Wick Warren of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the survey of school-age respondents paints a disturbing picture. "It shows worldwide about half the kids are exposed to smoke in public places, and that's not good news," he explains. "In some places, in some regions it reaches as high as 80 percent. That's terrible news. The goal is zero percent. So until we reach the goal we have a problem."

Secondhand smoke contains a toxic soup of chemicals that are linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other health conditions. World Health Organization official Armando Peruga says secondhand smoke also makes life miserable for children. "In children the bulk of respiratory diseases, asthma, ear infections are due to exposure to secondhand smoke, usually from friends and parents." Peruga says the youth survey indicates the extent of the challenge and sets the stage for policy change. 131 nations have signed the United Nations Tobacco Control Treaty, the first ever health treaty that promotes national laws to fight tobacco use.

But the agreement means little unless implemented, says George Saade who works for WHO in Beirut. For example, he says, Lebanon adopted the treaty in 2005, but has yet to enact legislation to address the issues. "Eight children [out of ten] are living in households where they are exposed to smoke," he points out. "Seventy-five percent are exposed to smoke in public places in a country with no public policy banning smoking in public places.

In addition Saade says, a growing number of youth in the Arab world have taken up smoking. "Fifty-five percent of our school children 13-15 years of age smoke water pipes at least twice during the week. Every water pipe session takes at least one hour to smoke and it is very bad from a public health perspective," he adds.

WHO's Armando Peruga says the UN health agency plans to issue recommendations on secondhand smoke by September. "One is that we are recommending that governments have laws by which all indoor work places and public places should be completely smoke free," he notes. "Second, governments and civil societies should do educational campaigns to reduce the exposure at home, which is still very high."

Peruga hopes that the Global Youth Tobacco Survey findings prompt countries to adopt policies to reduce the health impact of smoking. He says lives of their young people depend on it.