The Balkans: The land of inveterate smokers

The Balkans are home to Europe’s most inveterate smokers, where 30 to 40% of all adults are gripped by the habit, a major cause of premature death.

“People in that part of Europe smoke the most compared to the continent as a whole,” World Health Organisation (WHO) director for Europe, Marc Danzon, said on the sidelines of a regional conference on smoking prevention, held last week in Sofia.

Government representatives of eight of the countries in the region—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, and Serbia and Montenegro—met there to discuss smoking prevention and regulation.

“Relatively little importance has been attributed until now to the battle against tobacco smoking,” Danzon said.

The lack of action could be explained by “the power of the tobacco industry lobby, weaknesses of the regulatory, police and judicial systems, the presence of corruption and organised crime and its links to cigarette smuggling,” the World Bank said in a recent report.

“Up to 25% of the cigarette consumption in Croatia and Romania comprise smuggled cigarettes -‒ 38% in Bulgaria, 37% in former Yugoslavia, 40% in Macedonia, 47% in Bosnia and Herzegovina with rates as high as 80% reached in Albania,” the report said.

Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria, together with Italy are the biggest producers of tobacco in Europe, said Masha Gavrailova, a smoking prevention expert at the Bulgarian health ministry.

And while tobacco-growing traditions in the region keep the industry flourishing, the high incidence of smoking can be blamed on “cultural reasons”, Danzon explained.

The cigarette is still associated here with “freedom, the happiness of living, and women’s emancipation… while this tendency has already died out in the rest of Europe,” Danzon said.

The number of smokers among southeastern European women is increasing and is particularly high in Serbia and Montenegro (34%) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (28%), the World Bank reported.

In Bulgaria, nine percent of children under the age of 13 smoke, and the percentage of adolescent smokers is 33%, Bulgarian Minister of Health Svetoslav Gaydarski said.

In Bulgaria and Romania, one third of all deaths in men aged 70 and younger has been attributed to tobacco, while in the countries of former Yugoslavia the figure is as high as 42%, according to data from the World Bank.

In all the Balkan states the price of a packet of domestic brand cigarettes is generally low, costing as much as a kilogramme of bread or apples.

“This clearly shows that cigarettes are affordable, particularly given the availability of smuggled cigarettes that can be bought even more cheaply,” the report added.

Excise tax hikes on tobacco products can prove a very effective way to bring down smoking rates, especially among the young, according to experts.

“It has been estimated that a 10% increase in prices will lead to a two to four percent drop in the number of smokers,” said WHO expert Kristina Mauer-Stender.

Bulgaria’s government has recently decided to increase the price of locally manufactured cigarettes by one-fifth by 2009.

The country ranges third among the world’s largest consumers of tobacco per capita but this year imposed a smoking ban in its public buildings.

Bulgarian restaurants and bars were also required to provide special non-smoking areas for their customers.

“Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia already have the necessary tobacco-prevention legislation required by the European Union, which the three aspire to join,” Danzon said.

But despite being a “pioneer smoking-buster in the region” as far as legislation goes, Bulgaria still has trouble implementing some of the regulations. ‒ Sapa-AFP

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