LONDON (Reuters) - Africa faces a surge in cancer deaths unless action is taken in the next decade to stem rising smoking levels in a continent where anti-tobacco laws remain rare, U.S. scientists said Wednesday.
More than half the continent will double its tobacco use within 12 years if current trends continue, the American Cancer Society (ACS) said in a report which found that 90 percent of people living there have no protection from secondhand smoke.
Some African countries have introduced smoking bans but most have not and smoke-free public areas are few.
"For the first time in history, we have the tools in hand to prevent a pandemic," Otis W. Brawley, the ACS's chief medical officer, said in a statement with the report, which was presented at a cancer conference in Tanzania.
"Smoke-free public places are one example of a low-cost and extremely effective intervention that must be implemented now to protect health."
Many developed countries have tightened laws in recent years to make smoking unacceptable or illegal in public places like bars, restaurants, offices and on public transport -- as a way to protect non-smokers and to discourage the habit.
Secondhand smoke is known to cause cancer in adults and lung problems such as pneumonia in young children.
Over the past four decades, smoking rates have fallen in rich countries like the United States, Britain and Japan but have been rising in much of the developing world.
The ACS estimates that smoking will kill 6 million people worldwide in 2010 and 72 percent of those killed will be from low- and middle-income countries.
In a report published in August, it said that around 50 percent of men in developing countries smoke.
Within the last year, Kenya and Niger have brought in national smoke-free policies, the ACS report said, also noting that South Africa has had anti-smoking policies since March 2007 and has managed to cut smoking rates.
But the report listed many other countries which have not taken effective action, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria.
"In Abuja, Nigeria, for example, 55 percent of school students are not aware that secondhand smoke is harmful to health, and only 1 percent of Nigeria's population is protected by strong smoke-free laws," the report said.
The ACS called for more African governments to introduce anti-smoking legislation, and said other measures like charging high taxes on cigarettes had "significant potential" to cut smoking rates. "Doubling the price of cigarettes by increasing the tax can lower consumption by fully 60 percent," it said.
Editing by Robin Pomeroy