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Global Epidemic of Female Smokers Concerns Experts

Smoking among women is rising sharply at the same time rates among men are falling. That's the finding of a new report called Turning a New Leaf: Women, Tobacco and the Future, released at the 2006 International Cancer and Tobacco Control Conferences in Washington this month [July 10 - 14].

The report calls attention to the health threat that tobacco use is posing to women in the 21st century. Twelve percent of the world's women smoke and by 2025, the projection is 20 percent if current trend continues according to Lorraine Greaves, executive director of the International Network of Women Against Tobacco, who authored the report.

Greaves says while smoking rates today are four times higher among men, U.N. studies show that in most countries young girls are picking up the habit almost as fast as young boys. "What this tells us is that (the number of) women smokers will increase because many girls are smoking earlier in the [life] cycle in many, many populations in the world."

The report says women in the developing world will also be increasingly involved in the production of tobacco. By 2010, 85 percent of the world's tobacco will be grown in the third world according to a United Nations study.

Greaves says while such a shift could boost industrial profits, the sale, promotion and production of tobacco products come at great economic, social and health cost to women "whose economic security, food security, (and) family security is compromised by tobacco use." She adds that women working in tobacco production often end up being exploited. "So we are very concerned about this. The conditions of work are health threatening, economically depriving in that they pay very little money, and they lead to other series of problems that prevent women from getting ahead."

Health experts at the 2006 International Cancer and Tobacco Conferences, where the report was released, called on the global community to implement the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. That agreement, ratified by 134 nations, bans tobacco advertising, requires health warnings on tobacco products and advocates smoke-free public spaces. Greaves says it is urgent that nations accept these provisions.

"Even if their rates of women smoking in their population are still low at two or five percent, they should come in with gender-specific cessation programs right away and not wait until the problem is at 50 or 60 percent."

The report recommends widespread public education programs to raise awareness about tobacco use. Patricia Lambert, with the South African Ministry of Health and another of the report's authors, says that in their battle against tobacco, health advocates in her country are taking a page from the historic fight against apartheid. "Where you would organize group by group, family by family, street by street and get what used to be anti-apartheid messages for peace and social justice into the community. We are hoping to use the same kind of strategies on an ever increasing basis to bring about the idea that tobacco is a substance that will eventually make you sick or kill you, or it will impoverish you while it is doing it."

The report's authors hope decision-makers and the general public will consider the new findings, and work to prevent the dire health predictions in Turning a New Leaf, from coming true.