Are anti-smoking campaigns in Poland failing to reach teenagers?

More than 3 million Poles are believed to have quit smoking over the past 15 years since first nationwide anti-smoking campaigns were launched in the early 90s. From a country which led the grim global statistics for smoking Poland turned into a leader in the introduction of anti-smoking regulation. Bad news, however, is that a growing number of teenagers are taking up the habit.

An estimated 500 boys and girls under 18 in Poland start experimenting with cigarettes every day. Annually about 180,000 teenagers take up smoking. This group puffs at 3 to 4 billion cigarettes yearly. They know that smoking is a serious health risk but tend to yield to peer pressure, says Dominika, a 15 year old from Warsaw.

"Many teenagers smoke. For them it is very fashionable and in their environment - it makes you look cool. Teenagers know how dangerous it is but for many it is a way to be a part of their society".

Professor Witold Zatonski, a renowned cancer specialist and a motive power behind a major "Quit smoking with us" campaign, explains the rise in the number of young smokers through the transformations that Poland has undergone since it switched from a communist system to democracy at the start of the 1990s.

"In the old communist times, with a paternalistic family, we were smoking, everybody was, but we were working hard to make sure that our children didn't start smoking until they turned 18. So, we had theoretically a very low level of experimenting with cigarettes but this did not mean that children were educated not to start smoking."

At that time the realization that smoking is a leading cause of preventable death was far from obvious, says Professor Zatonski.

"In the 70s in Poland doctors were smoking like all Poles. There was no difference between smoking among medical doctors and the rest of the population."

So this was the first group at which Professor Zatonski targeted his campaign, to make doctors actively promote tobacco control. Then came the time for celebrities and politicians. Today, almost 80 percent of Poles support a ban on smoking in public places, according to a survey conducted by Pentor International Research pollsters. Pentor's president Piotr Kwiatkowski says this reflects deep changes in attitudes to smoking that have taken place here over the years.

"Poles are better aware of the health risks connected with both active and passive smoking. The ban on smoking in public places is backed by fifty percent of smokers. Cigarette smoking is no longer as widespread as it was before, nor is it regarded as fashionable any more. The number of smokers in Poland is definitely diminishing and it is a result of many factors, including a lot of educational activities."

In a country, where over 90 percent of the population say they are Catholics, the church plays an important role in anti-smoking campaigns. The Primate of Poland, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, traditionally presents awards from the "Health Promotion" Foundation for outstanding achievements in promoting healthy lifestyles. Local leaders are involved in the scheme, too. The mayor of Chelmno, in eastern Poland, Krzysztof Grabczuk, is one of those honoured for his determination to eradicate smoking from the town hall.

"At first everybody was unhappy but later many people thanked me for this move".

But smoking remains a problem in Poland. About 40 percent of the adult population smoke every day - that's about 9 million Poles. Women account for 25 percent of that number.