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Tobacco: an inconvenient weed

WHO cites a 21st -century 'catastrophe' if nations don't act to prevent smoking.

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A call for world action last week sounded as familiar as, say, that against global warming. But while a UN report did warn of a "catastrophe" in the 21st century, the topic wasn't the usual greenhouse gases. It was tobacco smoking.

In terms of global priorities to save lives, the math alone argues for as much attention to be paid to tobacco addiction as to climate change – maybe even more.

In the 20th century, more people died prematurely from smoking (100 million) than those who perished under the ruthless regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Today, tobacco is seen as responsible for more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined, according to the World Health Organization in its 300-plus-page report, "Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2008."

And with escalating numbers of people taking up the habit in poorer countries, WHO predicts another 1 billion people will die prematurely in the 21st century – unless more governments and people act to prevent smoking.

At its root, of course, smoking is more than a public health problem.

Like choosing to operate cars or appliances that cause carbon dioxide emissions, it is an individual moral choice that creates a harmful dependency but which can be reversed by an appeal to a person's higher nature and concern for the future. Fear of dying in a horrible way may compel many smokers to quit – 1 in 10 deaths is reportedly related to tobacco – but many ex-addicts say it is their love of life that saved them.

In fact, the theme of WHO's new antitobacco campaign is "fresh and alive." Its report is the first of yearly ones to come that will track each nation to see if it is following the UN agency's six recommendations, which are to:

•Monitor tobacco use and prevention policies.

•Protect people from tobacco smoke.


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