While cigarette smoking is declining in the United States and much of the industrialized world, it is growing in popularity in Africa. Some health policy experts believe the two phenomena are linked and add that cigarette smoking presents a growing health threat to Africans. In the first part of a VOA series on smoking in Africa, Robert Daguillard looks at who is smoking and what opponents and representatives of the tobacco industry are saying about it.
By all accounts, the experiences of people like Samuel Wargbo, a young Liberian receptionist, are more common these days in sub-Saharan Africa.
"In the interior, even in the Monrovia area where we live, where we live, you see people passing with cigarettes between their fingers, smoking, even in cars and all," says Wargbo. "I experienced it before: the bus that we're in, the driver was smoking! People have to tell him to stop!"
Although it is hard to gather statistics for the continent as a whole, anecdotal evidence, such as that provided by Samuel, suggests tobacco smoking is slowly gaining increasing in Africa. Samuel says more and more youth are smoking and adds that the rate of tobacco use among males and females is about the same.
For its part, the World Health Organization is reporting an increase of about four percent a year in tobacco consumption in Africa. Tom Glynn of the American Cancer Society says this trend may end up having a significant health and economic impact on the continent. "The long-term effect is going to be absolutely disastrous," the Washington-based Glynn says. "We have the potential of an epidemic of lung cancer, many other cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues if the tobacco industry is given free rein to promote its products."
Tobacco and smoking are present in sub-Saharan Africa in ways that are as diverse as the continent itself. Tobacco is produced on small farms in remote areas of Ethiopia, or in large factories owned by multinational corporations in Nigeria or Tanzania. Smokers comply with strong anti-tobacco regulations in countries like South Africa or "light up," so to speak, in the near-lawlessness of Mogadishu, Somalia's capital. People can buy packets in Kenya, or individual cigarettes in Senegal. And while the number of smokers is increasing across the continent, countries like Zimbabwe, which once considered tobacco the backbone of its agricultural economy, export much of their production to China and other overseas destinations.
The World Health Organization says 10 countries, by themselves, account for two- thirds of overall tobacco consumption. China, with one-third of the world's smokers, leads that list. The United States, with about five percent of all smokers, is fifth on the list, which does not include one sub-Saharan country.
Tom Glynn of the American Cancer Society says the international tobacco industry sees a potentially very lucrative market south of the Sahara. "There are about 800 million people in Africa, representing 12 percent of the world's population, but only about 4 percent of the world's smokers," he adds.
Keith Gretton, Africa-Middle East director for London-based British American Tobacco company, says worldwide markets are stable and rejects the accusation by anti-smoking activists that his and other tobacco companies are simply preying on the countries south of the Sahara. While he admits there are opportunities for smoking growth in Africa, he notes his company provides significant economic benefits to sub-Saharan states. "There's a lot of smuggling around the world, of cigarettes, a lot of illegal cigarettes," Gretton says, "and one of our top priorities is to keep that segment as small as possible and replace illegal cigarettes by duty-paid cigarettes, so governments get the revenue from that product. British American Tobacco paid 2.3 billion pounds ($3.4 billion) in taxes to governments across Africa and the Middle East last year."
British American Tobacco employs some 7,500 people across sub-Saharan Africa. One of its three African factories is located in Kenya. From there, cigarettes are packed and shipped to other East African countries, including landlocked Rwanda. At a bus and moto-taxi station on the outskirts of Kigali, the capital, drivers and passengers smoke in full view of posters warning of the dangers of tobacco.
Gustave Tombola is a researcher at the free university of Kigali. He says one way companies get around restrictions on tobacco advertising, is by donating supplies to schools or granting scholarships to students, including at his university. Tombola expects such strategies could prove effective. If someone consumes tobacco, maybe one day, understands that his son or her daughter was given a scholarship by that company, I'm sure that the person consuming tobacco will consume a lot," Tombola explains. "'Because that company, when I'm paying, they are paying for my children'" he adds.
But governments are reacting: in Nigeria, Lagos and Kano states are parties to a $21 billion lawsuit against British American Tobacco for allegedly marketing to the youth by sponsoring music concerts and other popular events. Officials in both states say the company's tactics undercut public health warnings. BAT denies it is doing anything harmful or illegal.
So, are the tobacco companies or their detractors winning the battle for public opinion in Africa?, we'll look at those who choose to smoke in Africa – and those who want no part of the tobacco culture.
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