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Cigarette Makers Still Lure Region’s Youth

Shigeru Omi – SCMP – Updated on May 29, 2008

Did you smoke when you were 13? I did, and so did many of my friends. In those days, it was second nature for youngsters to smoke. Boys did it because they thought it made them look and feel more like men: distinguished, respected, feared. For girls, it showed they were fun loving and grown up.

Years later, as I began to understand the hazards of smoking, I quit. Now, some 20 years on, I have noticed that a number of my friends who carried on smoking are suffering from cancer or heart disease. I can’t help wondering if I should have done more to persuade them to quit.

It has been a long time and I would like to think things have changed. But they haven’t.

Figures from the Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS) from 2000 to 2007 estimate that of children aged 13 to 15 in the Western Pacific Region, an average of 13.4 per cent smoke. The rough average for this age group in the whole of Asia is one out of five boys and one out of six girls. In the Philippines, one out of four boys smoke. And one out of three boys smoke in Malaysia, the Federated States of Micronesia and Tuvalu.

Today, I stopped to think about why I started smoking at such an early age. But the reason I kept on smoking was the image in my head that came from billboards, television and radio.

The tobacco industry is still using the same pernicious techniques. Now, as then, it targets youth in fun and familiar environments – the movies, fashion events, music concerts and sports. Lately, the internet has been the sea where this marketing net has been cast. Today the industry’s marketing net targets half a billion children and youths aged 6-23 in the Western Pacific.

Smoking tobacco is the leading preventable cause of death in the world. It is the only legal consumer product that kills one-third to one-half of those who use it as intended by its manufacturers, reducing their lives by an average 15 years.

It is estimated that related health care costs and productivity losses amounted to US$5 billion in China in 2000, US$327 million in Vietnam in 2005, and US$2.8 million in the Philippines in 2003.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is designed to curb this epidemic and to protect young people from the diseases that smoking brings. In Asia and the Pacific, countries are working hard to control a scourge that claims two lives every minute.

Under the terms of the FCTC, signatory governments undertake to curb the kind of inducements that first drew me into tobacco use. These commitments are reflected in the slogan for World No Tobacco Day, this Saturday, which calls on governments to “break the tobacco marketing net” and ban the advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products.

The tobacco industry’s tactics may not have changed since I was 13. But years of tobacco control advocacy have resulted in less acceptance of smoking as a norm and higher levels of awareness of the hazards of tobacco use.

Dr Shigeru Omi is WHO regional director for the Western Pacific

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