Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the WHO, told a meeting of pharmaceutical regulators in Berlin: "A cigarette is a euphemism for a cleverly crafted product that delivers just the right amount of nicotine to keep its user addicted for life before killing the person."
She called on international food and drug regulators to bring cigarettes under the same rules that govern the sales and promotion of nicotine products designed to help people give up smoking.
It is the first time such a move has been urged by the WHO. Dr Brundtland said the organisation planned to convene a high-level meeting of regulators to assess the extent to which the tobacco industry had tried to cover up the reality of nicotine addiction.
Dr Brundtland added: "Part of the failure of past tobacco control stems from the incongruous way tobacco products have been regulated. Tobacco's selling price is often regulated through taxes. The cigarette box is marginally controlled in many countries through mandated health warnings. And tobacco advertising is controlled only in some countries.
"But the root problem... is the product itself. Cigarettes are inherently dangerous products. The tobacco companies, despite knowing this for many years, have steadfastly chosen not to remedy this, and to press forward their sales."
Clive Bates, director of the anti-smoking group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), said: "We've never seen anything like this from WHO before. It signals a new determination to tackle tobacco at the global level."Reuse content