GENEVA - The World Health Organization is calling on schools to protect children from the harmful health impacts of tobacco use by creating nicotine- and tobacco-free zones on their campuses.
Tobacco kills more than 8 million people every year, most in low- and middle-income countries, which account for about 80% of the world's 1.3 billion tobacco users.
The United Nations health agency reports that roughly half of the world's children breathe air polluted by tobacco smoke and that about 51,000 children die each year from illnesses related to secondhand smoke.
"Young people are not only threatened by secondhand smoke," said Kerstin Schotte, medical officer at WHO, "they are also aggressively targeted by the tobacco and related industries and their deadly products."
As more than half of all smokers die prematurely, and in a bid to keep profits high, she said, the tobacco industry "tries to replace all the customers they lose by recruiting new users."
"Given that an overwhelming 90% of smokers pick up the habit before turning 18, teenagers become prime targets," Schotte said.
She said one tactic employed by the tobacco industry to entice young people to become new users is through marketing addictive, sweet and fruity flavored nicotine products. She said, "These products are sold near schools, online and in vending machines, where age verification can be circumvented."
She said the industry also has made its product more affordable for young people "through the sale of single-use vape sticks, as they are called. They usually do not bear any health warnings, and children often do not know that they contain nicotine and are dangerous."
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Ruediger Krech, WHO director of health promotion, said this is a problem throughout the world, in rich and poor countries alike. He noted that last month the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned 15 online retailers to stop selling illegal e-cigarettes that are packaged to appeal to young people.
He said these dangerous products are being sold in class, at bus stops - everywhere young people congregate. "We must protect young people from deadly secondhand smoke and toxic e-cigarette emissions, as well as ads promoting these products," he said.
E-cigarettes are marketed by the tobacco industry as products that help adult smokers quit the habit. However, medical officer Schotte said this isn't proven science.
"We think there is not enough evidence to say for sure that these products can help smokers to quit," she said. "If anything, we see another double use. The majority of smokers who try to quit smoking with these devices do not quit all products. But they just switch to these products.
"And our definition of quitting is not that you switch to another addictive product," she said.
To counter this, the World Health Organization has launched a new guide and toolkit for school administrators and teachers about how to create tobacco- and nicotine-free schools. The guides provide best-practice examples of what countries, cities and schools have done to become tobacco and nicotine free.
"Schools are in a unique position to create this healthy tobacco- and nicotine-free environment because children spend a third of their waking time in schools," Schotte said.
"This is the place where children encounter a lot of this peer pressure about using these products, and this is why it is important that schools provide this safe and healthy environment for children," she said.
The WHO guide highlights four ways to promote a nicotine- and tobacco-free environment for young people. They include banning nicotine and tobacco products on school campuses, prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes and other toxic commodities near schools, and banning the advertisement and promotion of tobacco products near schools. The guide also calls on schools to refuse sponsorships or engagement with tobacco and nicotine industries.
"We want children to be in a safe place," Schotte said, "so schools should be completely smoke and nicotine free indoors."
She noted that 149 countries already have put legislation in place prohibiting smoking inside educational facilities. She said the WHO guide also recommends turning the entire school campus - indoors and outdoors - into a smoke-free zone.
"We want to de-normalize the act of smoking in public places," she said.