LONDON More than a billion people in 19 countries are now covered by laws requiring large, graphic health warnings on tobacco packs but too many countries are still not doing enough to cut smoking rates, the World Health Organization said on Thursday.
In its third Global Tobacco Epidemic report, the United Nations health body said such warnings are proven to motivate people to quit smoking and also to reduce tobacco's appeal for people who are not yet addicted.
"We are pleased that more and more people are being adequately warned about the dangers of tobacco use," said Ala Alwan, a WHO expert on noncommunicable diseases and mental health. "At the same time, we can't be satisfied that the majority of countries are doing nothing or not enough."
More than a billion people worldwide are tobacco smokers and 80 percent of them live in poorer regions. Some experts have accused tobacco firms of capitalizing on societal changes in poor countries to target new potential smokers, particularly women, and of marketing cigarettes as a symbol of emancipation or greater economic prosperity.
Up to half of all smokers will eventually die of a tobacco-related disease and the WHO describes tobacco as "one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced."
Smoking causes lung cancer, which is often fatal, and other chronic respiratory diseases. It is also a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, the world's number one killers.
The World Lung Foundation welcomed progress outlined in the WHO report but noted it also showed that more than 70 percent of the world's population saw no national tobacco counter-advertising in the last two years. In nearly 150 countries there is a "paucity of any anti-tobacco public education using mass media," it said in a statement.
"Many countries have only done one campaign...while many more have not done any," said spokeswoman Sandra Mullin. "To shift behavior, counter-marketing needs to be run on a regular basis with a consistent message over the long term."
Requiring large, graphic health warnings is among the six demand-reduction measures recommended by WHO. Other include monitoring tobacco use, protecting people from tobacco smoke with smoke-free laws, helping users quit, enforcing bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and raising taxes on tobacco.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said last month she would go ahead with new laws requiring plain, brand-less packaging for cigarettes which are expected by January 2012.
The WHO predicts that tobacco will kill nearly 6 million people this year, including more than 600,000 non-smokers who will die as a result of exposed to second-hand smoke. It predicts tobacco could kill 8 million people a year by 2030.
The WHO report found that more than 739 million people in 31 countries are covered by comprehensive laws requiring smoke-free indoor spaces, more than double the number in its 2009 report.
Burkina Faso, Nauru, Pakistan, Peru, Spain and Thailand are among the latest countries to ban smoking in indoor public spaces and the workplace.
It said 12 more countries have raised tobacco taxes to more than 75 percent of the retail price, bringing the total to 27, and Chad, Colombia and Syria had banned tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.
Mexico, Peru and the United States were the latest countries to require larger and more graphic warnings on tobacco packs.
(Editing by Jason Neely)