Tobacco use is one of the biggest threats the world has ever faced, killing an average of one person every six seconds while being a risk factor for six of the eight leading causes of death in the world, Minister of Health and Social Development, Dr. the Hon. Hubert Minnis said Friday.

Dr. Minnis said tobacco is also considered the leading cause of preventable death worldwide, claiming the lives of 5.4 million persons annually from diseases such as lung cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. He said persons who use tobacco reduce their life expectancies by an average of fifteen years.

Dr. Minnis said that because of the “lag between starting to consume tobacco and the appearance of ill health,” the epidemic of disease and death has just begun.

He said a recent survey of Bahamians showed that approximately seven per cent of persons admitted to being current smokers with the median age reported for first-time cigarette smokers, at 18 years of age. Some persons surveyed said they began using tobacco from as early as seven years of age.

“Although the total number of persons who smoke may appear small, any amount of smoking can have detrimental effects on health,” Dr. Minnis said. “These effects are likely to multiply over time. Steps must be taken to curtail this growing problem and to ensure that no new smokers are added to this figure.”

Dr. Minnis said the Government of The Bahamas is ‘committed” to protecting the population from the harmful effects of tobacco through a number of initiatives. These include the posting of tariffs on the importation of tobacco products, education and public awareness campaigns, legislation to encourage smoke-free environments, and measures to limit the “overt advertisement” of tobacco and other harmful products.

“The cost of healthcare for tobacco-related illnesses is not only counted in dollars and cents, but in quality of life and decreased productivity,” Dr. Minnis said. “It is imperative that Bahamians, particularly our young people, realize the dangers of tobacco use. The Ministry of Health and Social Development would like to encourage good health. One step to achieving this is by not smoking.”

The Minister’s comments came one day ahead of World No Tobacco Day which will be celebrated globally on Saturday, May 31, 2008. The theme for this year’s observance is “Tobacco Free Youth.”

Dr. Merle J. Lewis, PAHO-WHO (Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization) Representative to The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands, said the focus on Tobacco Free Youth comes at an opportune time as approximately 1.8 billion young people aged 10-24 years, live in the world with more than 85 per cent of them residing in developing countries.

“Tragically this epidemic is shifting to the developing world where 80 per cent of tobacco-related deaths will occur within a few decades,” Dr. Lewis said. “For example, data from the Global Youth Tobacco Surveillance Report, 2000-2007, indicates that the proportion of youth surveyed (aged 13-15 years), reported ownership of an object with a cigarette brand or logo on it was highest in WHO’s African Region at 18 per cent.

“Most of tobacco’s damage to health does not become evident until years or even decades after the onset of use,” Dr. Lewis continued, “so while tobacco use is rising globally, the epidemic of tobacco-related disease and death has yet to reach its peak.”