30 May 2001
WHO URGES COUNTRIES TO PREVENT A TOBACCO EPIDEMIC AMONG WOMEN AND GIRLS
If countries don’t implement serious measures soon, tobacco-related deaths among women are going to increase substantially. Exposure to second-hand smoke and aggressive tobacco marketing and promotion are among the factors leading to a potential epidemic of tobacco-related diseases among women, said the World Health Organization today.
Countries must adopt a wide range of tobacco control measures, including bans on public smoking, and bans on tobacco marketing and promotion if they want to avert this epidemic, according to WHO.
Tobacco-related diseases are on the rise among women, particularly young women, said a new WHO monograph "Women and the Tobacco Epidemic – Challenges for the 21st Century," being released today. This is not only because more and more women are starting to use tobacco products but also due to the fact that millions of women are exposed to second–hand smoke on a daily basis.
"Second-hand smoke is an important women’s issue," said Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO Director-General. "Women everywhere are exposed to second-hand smoke and suffer serious health consequences because of it. In the Asian region where, on average, more than 60% of men are smokers, this means millions of women and children suffer from second-hand smoke. New evidence shows that parental smoking contributes to higher rates of sudden infant death syndrome as well as asthma, bronchitis, colds and pneumonia in children. We must do everything we can to protect women and children’s rights to a safe and healthy environment," she added.
Global estimates indicate that about 12% of women smoke compared to about 48% of men. This gap represents an opportunity but one that must be grabbed quickly if countries are to prevent the epidemic of tobacco deaths that are being seen among men today, says the monograph.
In some countries, the rates of smoking among women are already as high as 24%. In countries with high rates of female tobacco use, women are dying of tobacco-related diseases just as the men are. Women in the United States, for instance, began to take up smoking in large numbers during the 1950s. The results were fatal. Today, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women in the United States, surpassing breast cancer.
Increasing use of tobacco is becoming a global trend as aggressive marketing and promotion moves from developed countries and enters developing countries and economies in transition, says the monograph. Tobacco companies use misleading labels such as "mild" or "light" making health claims that are not true. False images of good health, fitness, stress relief, beauty and being slim are used to appeal to women. Tobacco products are promoted as a means of attaining maturity, gaining confidence, being sexually attractive and in control of one’s destiny—effectively exploiting the struggle of women everywhere for equality and women’s rights. Sponsorship of beauty pageants, sports events such as tennis, art and music events, and even women’s organizations is a marketing strategy that influences girls and young women to use tobacco.
According to the monograph, recent findings point to specific vulnerabilities that women have to tobacco. Pregnant women who chew tobacco or smoke, or who are exposed to second-hand smoke, have a higher risk of miscarriages and give birth to low-weight babies who are prone to infection. Smokers are more likely to experience primary and secondary infertility, delays in conceiving, an increased risk of earlier menopause and lower bone density. In addition to lung cancer, women who smoke have markedly increased risks of cancers of the mouth and pharynx, oesophagus, larynx, bladder, pancreas, kidney, and cervix. They have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly when using oral contraceptives. Chewing tobacco, smoking cigars, kretek and bidis are equally hazardous to the health of women.
Many women and girls are unaware of this basic information regarding health and tobacco, says the monograph , and much more effort must be made to reach women and girls concerning their health risks. Men also need to take more responsibility concerning the impact of second-hand smoke on women and children’s health.
In addition to bans on public smoking and bans on tobacco advertising and promotion, priority issues for action identified by the monograph include: economic measures such as tax increases; more gender-specific research on tobacco use and cessation, as well as the economic and, social effects of tobacco in general; the dissemination of health information to women and girls; and greater equality for women in policy decision-making. The monograph also calls for the full integration of gender issues into the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, currently being negotiated by 191 countries as the world’s first legally binding international treaty on tobacco control.
"Women and the Tobacco Epidemic: Challenges for the 21st Century" is based on papers commissioned by WHO for the international conference on Women and Tobacco in Kobe, Japan, in November 1999.
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