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Originally published Thursday, July 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Bill Gates, NYC mayor unite against a killer: tobacco

In his first event as a full-time philanthropist, Bill Gates joined New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg Wednesday in committing a combined $500 million to help governments around the world cut tobacco use.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Bill Gates, who is backing scientific research to solve some of the world's worst diseases such as AIDS and malaria, is now putting his money behind a drive to change an entrenched social habit that kills even more people: smoking.

In his first event as full-time philanthropist, Gates joined New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg Wednesday in committing a combined $500 million to help governments around the world cut tobacco use.

"In some ways this challenge is really more about policy and getting society energized than it is about waiting for a scientific breakthrough," Gates said.

The two former businessmen pledged to boost resources in developing countries to control tobacco, saying the smoking epidemic is entirely preventable using proven strategies.

Bloomberg, who made his fortune as the founder of the Bloomberg Business News service, will donate $250 million to extend an anti-tobacco initiative he started with $125 million in 2005. The money supports policies to increase tobacco taxes, change the image of tobacco, protect nonsmokers from exposure, ban tobacco advertising and help smokers quit.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will spend $125 million on tobacco-fighting efforts, including a $24 million grant directly to the Bloomberg Initiative.

The two billionaires first discussed ways to collaborate on anti-smoking programs during a dinner last year at Gates' Medina mansion.

More than 5 million people die of tobacco-related illnesses every year, the groups said. That's more than the combined toll of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, diseases that the Gates Foundation spends more than $1 billion a year fighting.

The effort aims to stem the smoking epidemic in countries such as China and India, as well as avert a potential smoking epidemic in Africa, said Kathy Cahill, deputy director of the foundation's global health program. Throughout the world, economic development has often brought increased tobacco use, she said.

Cahill has begun recruiting staff to work on the initiative.

The largest foundation in the world must overcome the tobacco industry's enormous advertising and lobbying efforts, not to mention cultural practices in which cigarettes play a central role.

"If we can implement policies now and educate young people ... that's what keeps people from starting to smoke or helps people who are smoking to quit," Cahill said. "That's the counter to tobacco companies advertising and pushing their products."

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Smoking in the United States peaked at more than 52 percent of men and 34 percent of women in the 1960s. That number has fallen to 23 percent of men and 19 percent of women today, Gates said.

"It's taken a long time to achieve that," he said. "That's the kind of thing we'd like to see in these other countries."

In China, which makes more than a third of world's cigarettes, the government owns cigarette-manufacturing companies. More than half of the country's doctors smoke, Gates said.

"We have to show them the profits they get are dwarfed by the expense to society," said Bloomberg, a philanthropist and former smoker who has helped implement some of the country's toughest anti-smoking policies in New York City.

Chinese campaigns against smoking will be tested next month in Beijing, where the city has banned smoking in public places and declared a smoke-free Olympics. Gates is currently financing some anti-smoking public-service announcements in China.

In India, anti-smoking campaigns are in the early stages, but the country's thriving Bollywood film industry still makes smoking look cool.

The foundation plans to steer much of its efforts toward Africa, where smoking isn't as prevalent yet.

"We will provide resources to reduce the epidemic in Africa," Gates said. "It's not well-advanced there. That means we can catch it an early stage."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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