The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday urged Asia-Pacific countries to protect women and girls from aggressive efforts by tobacco firms to induce them to start smoking.

In a statement ahead of World No Tobacco Day on May 31, the WHO’s regional office in Manila warned that smoking among women and girls was increasing in the Asia-Pacific.

It is estimated that more than 8 per cent of girls from 13 to 15, or around 4.5 million, are using tobacco products in the region, the WHO said.

“Starting early results in addiction that later translates to a life of nicotine dependence, poor health and premature death,” warned Shin Young-soo, the WHO’s regional director for the Western Pacific.

Shin said bans on advertising, promotion and sponsorship were needed to protect women and girls from deceptive messages that portray smoking as glamorous or fashionable.

“The truth is, smoking is ugly and harmful to health,” he said.

“Currently, only half of the countries in the Western Pacific have complete bans on advertising.” Shin added that smokers should not be tricked into believing that cigarettes labelled as light or mild are safer or less harmful.

“Misleading cigarette descriptors are meant to conceal the fact that all cigarettes contain 4,000 hazardous chemicals and 60 known carcinogens,” he said. “No cigarette is safe or less harmful.” The WHO also expressed alarm that close to half of all women in the Asia-Pacific are exposed to secondhand smoke in their homes or workplaces.

Secondhand smoke has been classified as a carcinogen in several countries and is known to cause lung cancer, heart disease and respiratory conditions.

But women and girls are sometimes forced to endure secondhand smoke because of cultural and social norms, the WHO said.

“For example, in China, 97 per cent of smokers are men and more than half of all Chinese women of reproductive age are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke,” it said.

A study in Shanghai of 72,000 non-smoking women found that exposure to their husbands’ habit increased their risks of dying from lung cancer, heart disease and stroke by up to 50 per cent.