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Group Calls For Global Tobacco Crackdown

Bertha Coombs,|CNBC Reporter

The World Health Organization is calling on world leaders to do more to reduce tobacco use,  warning in a new report that global deaths from smoking could exceed 8 million a year over the next two decades, with the vast majority of those deaths occuring in developing countries.

Calling tobacco "the single most preventable cause of death in the world today," the new WHO Report on The Global Tobacco Epidemic looks at world tobacco use and government efforts to combat smoking.

While the WHO report does not single out tobacco companies by name, some anti-tobacco groups have sounded the alarm about aggressive expansion in emerging markets by cigarette makers like Altria's Philip Morris International unit, which is set to be spun off as an independent company in March. Critics worry the spinoff will put PMI beyond the reach of strict U.S. tobacco regulations.  PMI has a 15 percent global market share, and as a stand alone company will be largest private cigarette maker in the world, behind state-owned China National Tobacco. 

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China is one of 152 countries that have signed on to the WHO's anti-tobacco treaty, which requires participating countries to enact smoking bans, restrict tobacco advertising and tax cigarettes. While China's health ministry has made efforts to ban smoking in public places, enforcement has lacked.  

The report concludes taxing cigarettes can be an effective smoking deterrent and source of funding for anti-tobacco measures. Yet researchers found governments around the world collect 500 times more in tobacco taxes than they spend on anti-smoking efforts.

"Virtually every country needs to do more,"  says Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO's Director-General, especially in emerging nations.  "To the tobacco companies, these economies represent vast new marketplaces."

With smoking rates declining in the U.S. and a growing number of European countries adopting public smoking bans, they have climbed in developing nations like Pakistan, where smoking is up 42 percent since 2001. More than half of the world's smokers live in emerging economies, including India, Russia and China, according to public health officials. 

The WHO is urging world leaders to adopt six key policies shown to reduce tobacco usage, outline in what it calls the MPOWER strategy:

  • Monitoring tobacco use
  • Protecting People From Tobacco Smoke
  • Offering Smoking Cessation Help
  • Warning About Tobacco Dangers
  • Enforcing Bans On Tobacco Advertising & Promotion
  • Raising Taxes on Tobacco

The WHO study was funded in part by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable foundation of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who helped pass a public smoking ban in New York City. In prepared remarks, the billionaire mayor said that while such measures are sometimes controversial, "They save lives, and governments need to step up and do the right thing."

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