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Asian Countries Back Policies to Cut Tobacco Use

The World Health Organization says health ministers from 11 South and Southeast Asian countries have promised to promote policies to combat the use of tobacco, which claims more than one million lives in the region every year. Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi.

The World Health Organization says 500 million young people between the ages of 10 and 24 in South and South East Asian countries are being aggressively targeted by the tobacco industry to make them first-time tobacco users.

The World Health Organization points out that most tobacco users in the region start at an early age - before they are 18, and many even before the age of 10.

But WHO officials are optimistic the situation may improve.

WHO regional Coordinator for Tobacco Control Khalil Rahman says the health ministers have made a political commitment to support policies that will help cut the use of tobacco.

"We have this very good news, good political support from all countries in the region, they are committed to tobacco control, despite the fact that even in the government, there is some opposition, but as a whole government is committed to tobacco control," Rahman said.

The health ministers met in New Delhi for a four-day conference that concluded Thursday.

The World Health Organization has urged the ministers to enact legislation to enforce smoke-free environments in indoor public places including offices, restaurants and bars.

India will shortly enact such legislation. Indian Health Minister Anmubani Ramadoss says starting October 2, it will become illegal to smoke in all public places in the country.

"Although it is fantastic to be in a youthful country, we need to protect this very valuable resource from the harmful effects of tobacco," Ramadoss said.

But putting laws in place is not enough. The World Health Organization says strict enforcement is equally important. It also wants countries to enforce a ban on all forms of tobacco advertising.

The World Health Organization is also urging countries to raise taxes on tobacco products. Rahman, says governments hesitate doing this, fearing loss of revenue due to a drop in sale of tobacco products. But he says increasing tax is effective.

"If you increase tax, you can earn more revenue from tobacco industry, and at the same time you can reduce consumption, and if consumption is reduced, you get less diseases and you spend less to treat those diseases," Rahman said.

Some countries in the region - Bangladesh, Burma and Thailand - have already imposed high taxes of up to 80 percent on tobacco products.

The populous South Asian and South East Asian region accounts for nearly one quarter of the five million deaths that take place worldwide every year due to use of tobacco.