India next week hosts a major world tobacco control conference, bringing experts from across the globe at a time of mounting concern about smoking in developing countries and among women.
Organisers of the 14th World Conference on Tobacco or Health hope the five-day event in Mumbai from Sunday will help develop new strategies to tackle a public health problem that claims 5.4 million lives a year worldwide.
The issue is seen as particularly acute in India, which is the world's second largest producer and consumer of tobacco and has never had a large-scale tobacco control campaign.
"We all realise that it's now time for the focus of tobacco control to shift to developing countries," conference president Prakash C. Gupta told a news conference in the city Tuesday.
"So far, most of the focus was on Western countries but the business has decreased in industrialised countries and the big tobacco companies are already targeting developing countries for expansion."
In India, more than half (57 percent) of men and just over one in 10 women aged 15 to 49 use tobacco in some form, according to a National Family Health Survey.
One third of men (33.3 percent) smoke and nearly a quarter (23.7 percent) use chewing tobacco or pan masala, an addictive flavoured tobacco and betel nut mixture. Among women, the figures are 1.6 percent and nearly 10 percent.
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine last February estimated that one in 10 deaths India from 2010 would be smoking-related.
The Indian government, which has ratified the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework on Tobacco Control, imposed a new ban on smoking in public places like bars, restaurants and railway stations last October.
An earlier ban four years earlier was largely ignored and enforcement of the latest measure has been patchy.
Gupta, officials from anti-tobacco groups and cancer specialists said they hoped the event, backed by WHO and involving 2,000 delegates, would help increase public awareness of the problem and lead to tighter legislation.
They also want to stop the spread of smoking by Indian women, many of whom have picked up the habit through jobs in the country's burgeoning call centre and media industries.
"This is a trend we have seen in many Asian countries where smoking among women has been common," said Gupta, a director at the Healis Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health in Mumbai.
"Now the trend is increasing in places like Japan and South Korea and many of these countries where economic development has taken place," he said.