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Taking tobacco out of mouth of babes

Legislators and health officials from 30 countries meet inWashingtonto combat teen smoking worldwide.

Outside the General Vicente Guerrero secondary school in Mexico City, student Chieko Fukimori trades off kissing her notebook photo of Brad Pitt and puffing on her cigarette.

"Everybody I hang around with smokes," says the teen, adding that it's something she's done since she was 11. "A lot of times we pool our money, buy a pack, and share the cigarettes."

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Is there any way to stop children like Chieko from smoking?

So far, the answer has been no. In most countries, smoking continues to rise, with 1.1 billion people lighting up - roughly the equivalent of the population of China. In the US, smoking among high school students increased from 28 percent in 1991 to 36 percent in 1997. By 2025, health experts say there will be 1.6 billion smokers worldwide - a significant number of them teens.

Now for the first time, legislators and health officials from 30 countries will meet in Washington today to discuss how to keep the world's children from smoking. They will discuss warning labels, taxes, and limits on advertising. They will compare tobacco company marketing programs. In short, it will bring together policymakers for a global smoke-out session.

"The idea is that the people who make the laws never talk to each other about tobacco and kids," says Bill Novelli, the head of The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the Washington lobbying organization, which is organizing the conference.

Among the stories that the 45 delegates will hear:

*How Australia has banned smoking sponsorship for most sporting events and replaced that sponsorship with funds raised from taxing tobacco.

*Canada now requires a public-health warning on the top third of a cigarette pack on both front and back. The warnings include "Smoking is addictive" and "Smoking can kill."

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*South Africa's legislature recently passed legislation with steep prohibitions on marketing and advertising cigarettes. In the law is a provision that allows the minister of health to regulate harmful tobacco emissions. It's going through another rewrite to avoid a constitutional challenge.

Some success worldwide

Antismoking advocates say that globally there have been remarkable success stories. Poland, for example, saw smoking decline 9 percent after mandating stronger health-warning labels.

Many countries have raised their taxes significantly. In Great Britain, a recent tax hike raised the cost of cigarettes to $6 per pack. "There have been some tremendous successes overseas, and this conference is not for Americans to tell others how to do things," says John Bloom, a Washington-based consultant on tobacco policy issues.

The tobacco industry considers the conference an international bash-fest. "I think it's more a publicity stunt than anything else," says Scott Williams, a Washington-based spokesman for the industry. "If they want to get kids to stop smoking, why haven't they invited anyone from the industry?"

Replies Mr. Novelli, "Right after the conference we would be happy to meet with the industry to tell them how they could protect kids."

Philip Morris says it supports minimum-age purchase laws around the world. "We have over 100 different programs around the world in either youth-access prevention or general-education programs," says Elizabeth Cho, a spokeswoman for Philip Morris International in New York.

Some government-mandated efforts aimed at children seem relatively ineffective. In Mexico, for example, before a Pall Mall TV ad (allowed after 9:30 p.m.), a male voice intones, "Discourage children from smoking."

But experts estimate that more than 1 million Mexican smokers are under 18 - the legal age for buying cigarettes. Authorities point to the country's antismoking campaigns and efforts in the schools as signs the government takes tobacco abuse seriously. But the Mexican tobacco industry spends 11 billion pesos on advertising - 500 pesos for every one spent on prevention and treatment.

Youth smoking in China is even more startling. According to Judith Mackay, director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control in Hong Kong, smokers are getting younger. Some 10 percent of the population smokes by age 15. This increases to 29.3 percent by age 20. Since few women smoke, this means 50 percent of Chinese males light up before they're 20.

Toddlers taking a puff

Ms. Mackay has seen children as young as 3 or 4 smoking. "It is considered cute for a grandfather to give his young grandchildren a cigarette," she says. "The problem is that they don't know smoking is bad," she says.

In 1991, the Chinese government began phasing in bans on broadcast advertising for cigarettes. Hu Peijin, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Patriotic Health Campaign, says China's recent laws are aimed "at dissuading all teenagers from smoking and are especially targeted at primary and middle school students."

Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, who came up with the idea for the conference, says companies know sales to children are increasing dramatically around the world. "There are ways for them to stop that, but they refuse, so I am skeptical of their denials," he says.

As evidence, at a press conference Senator Durbin produced a toddler's playsuit from Senegal with a Marlboro logo. "The clothing can only be worn by tiny children, and you are thinking, 'Why in the world would they do this?'"

Ms. Cho says the playsuit was an unauthorized use of the trademark and is being investigated.

After the Children & Tobacco conference ends, Novelli hopes the group continues to meet. He expects ideas from this meeting to flow into the next year's world conference on smoking in Chicago. "If we can keep it together, we can make a difference in the long term," he says.

*Howard LaFranchi in Mexico City and Kevin Platt in Beijing contributed to this report.

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