No smoke without some unreliable statistics

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The Independent Online
Compiling accurate statistics on the extent of cigarette smoking is not as straightforward as one might think.

While some basic information is commonly provided by governments, customs and excise agencies and health organisations in a particular country, there are often social, economic and cultural influences at work which make the real picture more difficult to see.

For example, in some cultures, smoking by women remains largely proscribed, so the given data for those nations would exclude female smokers.

In addition, cigarettes that are brought into a country by smugglers (and therefore not subject to Government taxes or levies) cannot be controlled, or even counted. Smuggling of cigarettes is known to be endemic in many poorer African and Asian countries, like Algeria, Nigeria, Pakistan, Zimbabwe or China.

In addition, the abolition of many internal restrictions on trade in the EU,l and the collpase of the former Soviet bloc, have presented a golden opportunity for racketeers.

Expressing cigarette consumption as "cigarettes" rather than as "grams of tobacco" leads to another problem. The quantity of tobacco stuffed into a cigarette differs from country to country, and within each country it can often differ from year to year. While in 1982 the average weight of 1,000 Australian cigarettes was 823 grams, by 1991, this had fallen to 715 grams.

And as if these discrepancies were not enough, the available data only talks about cigarettes per se, thereby excluding any other tobacco-based products. So in Norway, a country where rolling one's own cigarettes is particularly popular, the 3,500 tonnes of hand-rolling tobacco consumed in the year of the survey don't appear in the figures.

Nevertheless, regardless of how the statistics are compiled, evidence about the long-term health risks of smoking is considerable.

One person dies from lung cancer every minute of every day in the UK; nine out of every 10 cases are caused by cigarette smoking.

The Greeks, however, represent something of an anomaly here. Despite holding the unenviable fifth position in the world ranking of smoking nations, they display a suprisingly low rate of cancer and a low rate of heart and respiratory disease.

They do, it is true, consume a lot of fresh fish and olive oil, both foods full of polyunsaturates, and associated with good health, but does their diet counteract the effects of tobacco and offer a way out to millions of smokers in other countries?

Sadly, Karen Williams, of ASH, the tobacco control pressure group, thinks not. "The current number of ill people represents the the men and women who consumed lots of tobacco in the past, say the Fifties and Sixties. So the results of a high percentage of people smoking in a particular country now will only be seen years in the future."