Saying cigarettes kill hundreds of thousands of Eastern European men each year, an international group of doctors Friday declared war on smoking in a region where the Marlboro man still rides proudly. "One thing we should particularly cherish is the freedom from widespread nicotine addiction," the doctors declared, directing their warning at residents in Eastern Europe's new democracies.

Participants at the "Tobacco-Free New Europe" congress acknowledged that the habit will be hard to kick in Eastern Europe."We have to make the problem real when it doesn't seem that way," Dr. Richard Peto of Oxford University in England said at the end of the Warsaw conference organized by the International Union Against Cancer.

In Eastern Europe, domestic state-produced cigarettes are strong and cheap - 35 cents a pack in Poland - while Western brands symbolize status.

There are no warnings on packages or advertisements, an estimated 40 percent of Polish doctors smoke, and the majority of cigarettes are manufactured without filters and with low-quality tobacco carrying higher tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide.

Offering a cigarette is a social courtesy, and American brands have long served as an unofficial currency in some of the countries. Virtually every restaurant, train station and party is hazy with smoke, and it's rare for anyone to ask, "Do you mind?"

Post-communist governments are beginning to tackle a host of problems long recognized in the West, but smoking isn't one of them, Peto said.

"People believe that other things are more important - air pollution, stress, eating habits - but these things are trivial in comparison," he said.

Overall, the doctors said smoking accounts for roughly 40 percent of the 1 million deaths each year of middle-aged men in Eastern Europe.