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Tobacco poses major global threat to women and girls, UN health agency warns

Tobacco poses major global threat to women and girls, UN health agency warns

With tobacco companies aggressively marketing their products worldwide, a potential epidemic of tobacco-related diseases among women could erupt, according to a new publication released today by the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO study, entitled Women and the Tobacco Epidemic - Challenges for the 21st Century, points out that tobacco companies are increasingly peddling their wares in developing countries and economies in transition. The agency charges that the corporations are using "false images of good health, fitness, stress relief, beauty and being slim" to appeal to women.

WHO accuses tobacco companies of "exploiting the struggle of women everywhere for equality" by promoting tobacco products as a means of attaining maturity, gaining confidence and being sexually attractive. The agency also points out that by sponsoring beauty pageants, sports events and even women's organizations, the tobacco companies influence young females to use their products.

The study highlights recent findings on how tobacco is particularly harmful to women. "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," WHO states, noting also that smokers are more likely to experience infertility and an increased risk of early menopause.

Commenting on the study's findings, WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland stressed the need to protect the rights of women and children to a safe environment. "Women everywhere are exposed to second-hand smoke and suffer serious health consequences because of it," she observed. "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."

The study contains a number of recommendations to respond to the tobacco threat, including bans on public smoking and tobacco advertisements, economic measures such as tax increases, and the dissemination of relevant health information to women and girls. WHO also calls for the full integration of gender issues into the proposed framework convention on tobacco control, which is now under negotiation as the world's first legally binding international treaty on the issue.