Never mind the smoking bans, high taxes and the pictorial death warnings. Europeans still rank as the world’s heaviest smokers.
About 28 percent of adults smoked in 2011 in Europe as more French picked up the habit, according to statistics released today by the World Health Organization’s regional office in Copenhagen. Tobacco-related illnesses cause 16 percent of deaths in Europe, compared with 12 percent globally, the WHO said.
Five centuries after Rodrigo de Jerez, a shipmate of Christopher Columbus, imported the habit from the New World and got imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition for fear that Satan was the source of the smoke he exhaled, the continent is still struggling to stamp cigarettes out. The WHO’s statistics suggest that while Europe has led the world in increasing cigarette taxes, the region may need to strengthen smoking bans and advertising restrictions to cut tobacco-related illnesses.
“I’m totally hooked,” said Sarra Nedjai, a 25-year-old Parisian shop worker who smoked her first at 16 and tried to quit two years ago but failed because she says she smelled cigarettes everywhere. “Lung cancer scares me. I know smoking is bad, but I just can’t stop.”
Smoking rose in France, Albania and the Czech Republic between 2005 and 2011, while rates in Switzerland have remained about the same. Russia has the highest rate of men smoking and Austria leads in women smoking.
“This is quite shocking, because people do believe that in Europe many things are done well and that many problems have already been solved,” Kristina Mauer-Stender, the Copenhagen-based tobacco program manager at the WHO for Europe, said in an interview.
In the Americas, smokers account for 20 percent of the adult population. The smoking rate is 25 percent in the western Pacific region and 22 percent in the Mideast.
European smoking rates dropped 7 percentage points between 2005 and 2011, according to the WHO. One of the biggest declines was in the U.K., where smoking dropped to 22 percent for both men and women in 2011 from 37 percent and 35 percent in 2005 respectively.
Austrian women led an increase in female smoking with a 7 percentage point increase, while such figures increased by 3 percentage points or more in France, the Czech Republic and Lithuania between 2005 and 2011, according to WHO data.
Tobacco use among women and girls in Europe is accelerating at an “alarming” rate, the United Nations agency said. Smoking among young girls is now on par with boys in the region, which includes Russia and eastern Europe.
“I’m shocked at how young some of the kids are who stop me on the street to bum cigarettes,” said Raya Hela, 23, a student living in central Paris who started in high school. She gets requests from children in middle school, who are typically 11 to 15 years old.
European countries have led the world in taxing tobacco, which the WHO has said is the most cost-effective way to reduce smoking rates. Worldwide, 32 countries have duties high enough so that 75 percent of the cost of a pack of cigarettes is tax; 25 of those nations are in Europe. A 10 percent increase in tobacco prices cuts consumption by about 4 percent in high-income countries and as much as 8 percent in poorer nations, the WHO has said.
France plans a 20 centime per pack increase in January, scaling back a plan for a 40 centime increase, Le Figaro reported last week.
The European Union is considering new rules for smoking and tobacco-related marketing which include a ban on flavored cigarettes, limits on the use of e-cigarettes and increasing the size of the warning labels on packages. A final vote is expected in springtime.
While the EU has banned tobacco advertising in print media, on the radio and Internet, Europe lags behind all other regions in terms of banning marketing in the WHO survey. Only Albania, Spain and Turkey ban all forms of direct and indirect advertising, the WHO said.
Scotland aims to be smoke-free by 2034. Ireland, New Zealand and Finland have also set deadlines to reduce smoking to less than 5 percent of the population.
Electronic cigarettes may undermine the Scottish smoke-free target as tobacco companies may use them to attract new consumers to traditional cigarettes, said Sheila Duffy, head of ASH Scotland, an anti-smoking group. The products aren’t covered by Scotland’s smoking ban, age requirements and advertising restrictions, she said. E-Lites sponsor Scotland’s two major football teams, Rangers and Celtic, and sell e-cigarettes with tips that glow in the club colors.
“That’s aimed at hooking the next generation into nicotine addiction,” Duffy said.
In the U.K., the government is considering requiring plain packaging, eliminating logos and marketing on tobacco packs, a measure Australia has adopted.
The French government should fund more campaigns to prevent teen smoking, said Laura Pivron, a 21-year-old pack-a-day smoker who was braving chilly weather in Paris without coats or gloves to smoke.
“It’s expensive and bad for me, but it also helps reduce stress,” she said. “I would tell kids at school not even to try smoking because once they start it’s impossible to stop.”