Women - Progress and Disparity

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Women's health: Up in smoke?

Where 20% or more
women smoke

Percentage of smokers
aged 15 or above
Country Men Women
Denmark 37 37
Norway 36 36
Czech Rep. 43 31
Fiji 59 31
Israel 45 30
Russian Fed. 67 30
Canada 31 29
Netherlands 36 29
Poland 51 29
Greece 46 28
Iceland 31 28
Ireland 29 28
Papua New Guinea 46 28
Austria 42 27
France 40 27
Hungary 40 27
Uruguay 41 27
Cook Islands 44 26
Italy 38 26
Luxembourg 32 26
Slovakia 43 26
Switzerland 36 26
United Kingdom 28 26
Brazil 40 25
Chile 38 25
Cuba 49 25
Spain 48 25
Estonia 52 24
Sweden 22 24
Turkey 63 24
United States 28 24
Argentina 40 23
Slovenia 35 23
Germany 37 22
New Zealand 24 22
Australia 29 21
Bolivia 50 21
Costa Rica 35 20
Source: WHO, The Tobacco Epidemic:A Global Public Health Emergency, table 3, April 1996
Smoking among women in developing countries is far less prevalent than among men -- so far. WHO estimates that 48% of males aged 15 and over in the developing world smoke, compared to only 7% of females. But in developing countries, with fewer restrictions to stop the tobacco companies' aggressive marketing and with less public awareness of smoking's grave risks, it is only a matter of time before the percentage of women smokers starts to climb. Stemming a surge in smoking among girls and women is therefore a global health challenge.

Among 87 countries with available data, there are 38 countries worldwide where 20% or more women age 15 or older smoke. Only 7 of these are developing countries: Brazil, Chile, Cook Islands, Cuba, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Uruguay. The highest women's smoking rates are in Europe -- Denmark and Norway top the list with 37% and 36%, respectively.

About 3.5 million people die each year from tobacco use, more than half a million of them women. As the proportion of women smokers increases, so ultimately will the proportion of women dying from tobacco-related causes.

Most smokers start during their teens -- the median age of initiation is under 15 in many countries. In a number of industrialized countries, including Austria, Denmark, Spain and Sweden, smoking rates are now higher among teenage girls than teenage boys, according to WHO. Yet the tragic impact in illness and death among these young people will not appear in the statistics for about 30 years. In the industrialized countries where women have long smoked, their death rate from smoking-related disease is rising rapidly, accounting for 25% to 30% of all female deaths in middle age.

In addition to the main smoking-related illnesses, including lung and oral cancer, emphysema and heart disease, women smokers face increased risk of cervical cancer, impaired fertility and premature menopause. There is also a higher rate of miscarriage among expectant mothers who smoke, and smoking during pregnancy is linked to low birth weight, which increases infants' risk of death and illness.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child mandates countries to safeguard children's health and to protect them from exploitation and promote health education. Therefore, support for strong restrictions on the sale and promotion of tobacco products to children and teens is a global child rights issue.


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