Smoking still number one public health hazard in Hungary

Hungary has some of the worst statistics in the EU for smoking and smoking-related illness and deaths. And there's more cause for concern. Smoking among women and young people is on the rise. Agi Varga of Radio Budapest investigates the possible reasons and how Hungary is confronting the problem:

Smoking is still the number one public health hazard in Hungary. About 20,000 Hungarians die every year due to smoking, the country ranks first in the world for rates of lung cancer among both men and women and it is also first as far as lip cancer is concerned. Professor Tibor Szilagyi is an advisor to the World Health Organisation, and also heads the Hungarian Coalition for Tobacco Control.

"About 40 percent of Hungarian men and 31 percent of Hungarian women still smoke regularly, which is very high even among Eastern European countries. Hungarians rank 8th in the world in per capita cigarette consumption, which is also very high. So I can say that smoking is still in fashion in Hungary and there is no trend for this custom to be changed."

Professor Szilagyi says the reason why Hungarians smoke so much is that they can do it. Cigarettes are widely available, they are relatively cheap, unlike in Western European countries, and perhaps society is still more tolerant to smokers than it should be. But, he says, there is another, quite simple reason:

"The Hungarian regulations, especially regarding smoking in public are very weak as compared to regulations in other European countries, or the trend in the European Union. So this kind of availability of cigarettes, as well as the weak regulation of smoking, and the lack of political support for strong interventions to control tobacco are the main reasons why smoking continues to be the most important health hazard in Hungary."

One does not have to be a chain smoker - as a recent Norwegian survey points out - to run the risk of becoming ill because of smoking, and we should also not forget about passive smoking. Its prevention is one of the main priorities of Western European countries and the EU, as the example of Ireland and Italy shows. Ardent campaigners for tobacco control say the tobacco industry and lobby are still very powerful in Hungary even after the closure of three factories belonging to multinational tobacco companies. Professor Szilagyi shares the view of anti-smoking NGOs that economic measures like price and tax increase on tobacco products or tighter control of the black market should be promoted.

"Hungary has to follow Western Europe and the European Union as far as the regulation of smoking related issues is concerned. We have to regulate smoking in public more powerfully and that will give a sign to the public that smoking is not acceptable these days."

Hungary will also need to put more money into community-based programmes - campaigns to help people quit and convince children not to start in the first place.