A 12-nation anti-smoking group started an offensive Friday to combat what it says are efforts by Western tobacco firms to increase the number of women and adolescent smokers in Asia.

The Asia Pacific Association For The Control Of Tobacco said Western - mainly U.S. - tobacco companies had dramatically stepped up their marketing toward women and teenagers in the region over the past 12 months and both markets showed signs of growth."We are very concerned," said APACT Executive Secretary Ted Chen. "The level of women and children smokers had traditionally been very low in Asia, but now that trend is moving steadily higher."

Tobacco firms swiftly moved into Asia as growing health concerns and tightening market controls slashed their profits in the West. The firms, however, categorically deny marketing to women or children.

Speaking at the end of the group's third annual executive meeting, APACT officials said, overall, only about 5 percent of women in Asia currently smoke but that Western tobacco companies are successfully increasing that market.

The 12-member Asian group also lashed out at tobacco firms for encouraging adolescents to smoke by offering free admission into pop music concerts and discos to people turning in empty cigarette packages at the door.