The World Health Organization launched a campaign on Friday to try to stop what could become a health catastrophe caused by rapidly rising levels of smoking in Africa.

The Geneva-based agency said it wanted to stop tobacco from becoming as prevalent in Africa as it is in other parts of the world and would set up a regional hub in 2010 for health experts to work with governments to introduce anti-smoking policies.

Tobacco use is the most preventable cause of illness and death, the WHO's expert on non-communicable diseases, Ala Alwan, said in a statement.

Unchecked, it will kill more than 8 million people per year by 2030, with more than 80 percent of those deaths occurring in developing countries. Although tobacco use is less prevalent in Africa than in other regions of the world, that will change unless we act.

The American Cancer Society said last month that rising smoking levels in Africa -- which are expected to double in some areas -- could cause a pandemic.

Some African countries have introduced smoking bans but most have not. Experts fear that if current trends continue, the continent faces a surge in cancer cases and deaths from smoking.

Tobacco use is a key risk factor for heart attacks, strokes, cancers, diabetes and asthma and other chronic diseases -- which together account for 60 percent of all deaths worldwide.

Such diseases are expected to account for 46 percent of deaths in Africa by 2030, up from 25 percent in 2004.

Alwan said smoking was not just a health problem, but an economic one too.

Tobacco breeds poverty, killing people in their most productive years, he said. It consumes family and health-care budgets -- money spent on tobacco products is money not spent on such essentials as education, food and medicine.

A spokesman for the WHO said the regional hub would be set up in an existing medical, health or university institution in the region but the location had not yet been decided.

Experts at the center will work with governments to help them introduce and enforce policies such as smoke-free pubic places and bans on tobacco advertising and sponsorship for sports and other events. The work will be financed in part by a $10-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.