By  on June 10, 2008

GENEVA — The World Health Organization has lashed out at the tobacco industry for using cigarette brand logos in apparel, accessories and footwear to indirectly promote its products, especially among young people.

"It converts youth to walking billboards because where they can't advertise, they put their logos onto boots, their caps, shirts or their pants, and then convert the youth into a moving billboard," said Douglas Bettcher, director of WHO's tobacco-free initiative.

Tobacco companies employ "predatory marketing strategies" to get young people hooked on cigarettes and other tobacco products, Bettcher said, noting that the mediums used include movies, the Internet, fashion magazines, music concerts and sports events.

Bettcher said scientific research has shown that the degree and propensity of addiction among youths "is related to the dose of exposure to tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship."

Vera da Costa e Silva, senior public health consultant with WHO, said, "Having logos on apparel or boots is indirect advertising, it's a way to ensure that the person has the logo in mind, if it happens that they start smoking."

WHO did not single out any industry firms for criticism.

A study by WHO and the U.S. Center for Disease Control of students between 13 and 15 years old in 150 countries found 56 percent are exposed to some sort of promotion of tobacco products, she said, and even more worrisome is that 20 percent of students owned an object with a cigarette brand logo on it.

To counter the tobacco marketing problem, WHO is urging governments to protect the world's 1.8 billion young people between 10 and 24 years old, 80 percent of whom are from developing countries, by imposing bans on all forms of tobacco advertising, promotions and sponsorship.

Only 5 percent of the world's population is covered by comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising and sponsorship, WHO estimated. The organization projects that as many as one billion people could die this century from tobacco-related diseases, which accounts for 5.4 million deaths a year, but is expected to increase to 8.3 million deaths annually by 2030.

Bettcher said WHO is also looking at celebrities to work as ambassadors to help stem the tobacco epidemic, noting that smoking scenes in India's Bollywood and in Hollywood films are on the upswing.In India, 89 percent of movies from 2004 and 2005 contained tobacco scenes, he said, adding that the current rate of smoking scenes in Hollywood films "has returned to the levels of the Fifties after reaching the lowest levels in the Eighties."

Moreover, da Costa e Silva said a recent study carried out in 40 locations around the world showed "a clear relationship between smoking in movies and pro-tobacco attitudes and beliefs among adolescents exposed to these movies."

But she stressed it also exists in TV soap operas.

"In many developing countries, soap operas are used as a vehicle for tobacco product placement," she added.

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