The World Health Organisation called on Friday for more action against tobacco advertising that targets women and girls, especially in developing countries.
Females represent the biggest potential growth market for tobacco products and are being subjected to aggressive campaigns linked to fashion, sports events and entertainment, the United Nations agency said.
"The industry's market strategy is having its desired impact," Douglas Bettcher, director of WHO's tobacco free initiative, said at a news briefing. "More and more girls are starting to light up. This is a serious red flag."
Ahead of World No Tobacco Day on Monday, the WHO released its survey on youth smoking.
Many teenage girls smoke
The report said that out of 151 countries, half reported that as many teenage girls smoke as boys, and even outnumber boys in parts of Latin America, notably Chile, Colombia and Mexico, as well as in Eastern Europe.
Men account for 80% of the world's 1 billion smokers, according to the United Nations agency. Among adults, 40% of men smoke, compared to about 9% of women.
In large emerging markets such as China and India, 60% of men smoke against 3% to 5% of women, leaving an important market to capture, WHO officials said.
Advertising targets women
"The tobacco industry is spending heavily on seductive advertisements that target women especially in low- and middle-income countries," Bettcher said. "The advertisements try to dupe women in believing that tobacco use is associated with beauty and liberation."
Some 5 million people die every year from tobacco-related heart attacks, strokes and cancers, including 1.5 million women, according to WHO. Another 430,000 adults die annually from exposure to second-hand smoke, two in three of them women.
A WHO treaty in 2003, ratified by 160 countries, recommended imposing a complete ban on advertising, promotion and marketing of tobacco products. Only 26 countries have done so, it said.
More than $13 billion was spent on tobacco advertising and promotion in the United States in 2005, according to the WHO.
In Japan, where rates of male smokers have sharply fallen in recent years, pink packs of cigarettes are aggressively promoted to attract girls, according to the WHO. In Egypt, one maker uses a cigarette pack resembling a perfume container.
"The industry has studied what makes women tick in both the developed and developing countries," said Adepeju Olukoya, of the WHO's gender, women and health department. - (Stephanie Nebehay/Reuters Health, May 2010)