Southeastern Europe has the heaviest smokers on the Continent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), while the agency calls smoking an «epidemic» that claims millions of lives each year. According to a report released by the WHO ahead of today’s World No Tobacco Day, there are currently over 1.2 billion smokers worldwide and approximately 4 million deaths from tobacco annually. The world health body stresses that a notable decline in tobacco use has been reported in many developed countries, but the trend does not extend to developing countries, which have seen a sharp increase in tobacco consumption. «Looking ahead to 2020, the picture changes dramatically – tobacco will become the largest single health problem, causing an estimated 8.4 million deaths annually,» the WHO declared in a statement from its Tobacco-Free Initiative. «This increase will not, however, be shared equally as deaths in developed regions are expected to rise 50 percent from 1.6 to 2.4 million, while those in Asia will soar almost fourfold from 1.1 million in 1990 to an estimated 4.2 million in 2020.» The health agency has developed a conceptual framework that analyzes the «cigarette epidemic» in four stages as a continuum, rather than as a series of isolated events, thus creating a global map of tobacco use trends. «Stage 1» is when fewer than 20 percent of males smoke and almost no women, and includes many countries in sub-Saharan Africa – countries that have not yet been drawn into the global tobacco economy. By contrast, «Stage 2» of the epidemic, marked by rising smoker numbers to above 50 percent in men, more women taking up the habit, and rising death rates from lung cancer among men, is typical of many countries in Asia, North Africa and Latin America. A first downward trend is seen in «Stage 3,» which is characterized by a marked drop in the number of male smokers, a more gradual decline in the number of female smokers, and continued increases in mortality from smoking that are estimated at between 10 and 30 percent of all deaths. Many countries in Eastern and Southern Europe are at this stage of the epidemic. The fourth and final stage of the epidemic is marked by further declines in the numbers of male and female smokers. Meanwhile, deaths attributable to smoking among men peak at 30 to 35 percent of all deaths (40 to 45 percent of deaths in middle-aged men), while among women the death rate rises to about 20 to 25 percent of all deaths. Countries in Northern and Western Europe, North America and Australia are at this stage. Greeks lead in EU, Balkans EU statistics released on Monday show that Greeks are the heaviest smokers in the European Union, with nearly half the population aged over 15 admitting to the habit. According to the Eurostat report, 58.1 percent of Greek men aged over 15 and 32.2 percent of women smoke. Moreover, the overall average for the general population over 15 is 44.9 percent, while the EU average is 33.9 percent – 40.2 percent for men and 28 percent for women. Greek law does not prohibit the sale or distribution of tobacco to minors. From these figures, Greece appears be at «Stage 2» of the WHO’s global map of smoking trends, a stage where «the epidemic is characterized by increases in smoking prevalence to above 50 percent in men, and rising death rates from lung cancer among men.» Greece finds itself among countries in Asia, North Africa and Latin America, where the health organization declares that «tobacco control activities are usually not well developed, the health risks of tobacco are not well understood, and there is relatively low public and political support for the implementation of effective tobacco control measures.» This trend also shows a country faced with an identity crisis. Greece, an EU member state that is identified as belonging to Western Europe, has a population that continues to behave more like Balkan nations – at least when it comes to smoking. According to the WHO, Greece is trailed closely by Turkey, which in 1997 reported that 51 percent of its male population aged over 15 smoke. Turkey, though, takes the lead in Southeastern Europe when it comes to women smokers, with 49 percent of Turkish women admitting to the habit. Meanwhile, Yugoslavia appears a viable challenger for the first place, with 57 percent of all of its adult population having admitted to smoking in 1999. A closer look into the statistics of the health organization reveals the emergence of Greece in recent years as a vital regional market in Southeastern Europe for the tobacco companies. According to the WHO, in 1970, Greeks consumed a total of 17 billion cigarettes, while in 1995 that figure jumped to a high of 37.6 billion. There was also a record rise in cigarette imports during those years. In 1970, Greece imported 21 million cigarettes, in 1998, 13.1 billion. Domestic production also saw a marked growth. This massive increase in cigarette consumption made Greece a lucrative market for foreign tobacco companies, and an analysis of the market share by cigarette manufacturers reveals a clear domination. The WHO’s records show that in 1999, Philip Morris controlled 25.4 percent of the Greek tobacco market, followed by Rothmans with 14.3 percent, Papastratos (a Greek firm) with 13.7, RJR (JT) with 11.6 percent, with other companies accounting for the remaining 35 percent. In the rest of the Balkans, however, domestic firms continue to control the cigarette market. In Bulgaria, Bulgartbac controlled 94 percent of the domestic market in 1998, trailed closely by the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia where Makedonija Tabak controlled 89.4 percent, and Yugoslavia where the government controlled 74.7 percent of the market. Also, in Turkey, the Turkish State Monopoly controlled 70.4 percent of the domestic market in 1998, while similar patterns prevail throughout Southeastern Europe.