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South Korea Leads Regional Fight Against Smoking, But Uphill Battle Remains

South Korea is emerging as a model of success in preventing smoking-related illnesses and deaths. Western Pacific health officials meeting in South Korea say they will push forward with the kinds of reforms Seoul has sponsored in order to get their citizens to kick the cigarette habit. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from the gathering in Jeju, South Korea.

South Korean Health Ministry official Kim Choon-keun shared some impressive numbers on South Koreans' tobacco use Thursday with World Health Organization officials.

"(The) smoking rate among male adults dropped from 57.8 percent in 2004 to 44.1 percent in 2006," Kim said.

WHO officials describe that as one of the most dramatic declines in male smoking in the world. The WHO says current patterns forecast that about 10 million people, worldwide, will die of smoking-related illness by 2020. WHO Western Pacific officials are here in Jeju, discussing that and other health risks.

Burke Fishburn is the coordinator of the WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative, which has drafted a comprehensive set of guidelines for stamping out smoking. He says South Korea's success comes from targeting smokers' wallets.

"They raised tobacco prices significantly through a series of tobacco tax increases. That, by far, had the largest impact," Fishburn noted.

South Korea has also set up many telephone hotlines and counseling services to help smokers quit. Seoul and other regional capitals have cracked down on tobacco marketing, but Philippine Health Secretary Francisco Duque says the tobacco industry is taking the fight to the courtroom.

"I, as the Secretary of Health... have aggressively pushed for the strict implementation of the ban on all tobacco advertising on television, cable television, all cinema and outdoor advertising - notwithstanding the case that has been filed against me by one of the leading tobacco companies," he said.

Landmark court cases in Europe and the United States, combined with smoking bans in many public places, have diminished tobacco profits there. So, the WHO's Fishburn says the industry has shifted its focus to Asia - and is finding its way around advertising bans.

"They're going underground. They're going into clubs, nightspots, they're sponsoring events," Fishburn said. "And in doing that, they continue to target young people…In some ways, they're five steps ahead of us."

The WHO sponsors what it describes as a "global health treaty" of steps to fight tobacco use worldwide. One hundred sixty eight countries have signed on to the agreement.