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South African Smoking Rates Stubbornly High --> Though South Africa has some of the most stringent tobacco laws on the continent, smoking rates remain high with 25 percent of men consuming cigarettes, second only in the region to Namibia’s 36 percent.

John Nzimande sits with his co-workers at lunch break on a construction site in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city. Before opening their lunch tins, they light up a cigarette after hours of digging on a site related to the World Cup of soccer in June.

John says taking a few puffs before and during lunch helps him relax as workers are under high pressure to meet deadlines.

His colleagues agree it is hard in their line of work to quit smoking, though they know the habit has clear health risks.

“I like to leave this thing (smoking) but I can’t just because from the time I started until now it’s been a problem to leave it,” said Nzimande. “I like to leave it but I don’t have a plan – like when I’m at work I feel nice if I’m smoking and I cannot think very quickly when I don’t smoke.”

Adds co-worker Thomas Dube: “When I don’t get a cigarette I don’t put a good performance at my job but now I want to leave this because when I smoke I feel something here in my lungs - its cancer, it’s what I do not know, sometimes I just feel a pain but hey, I just get difficulties to leave it.”

Johannesburg is in Gauteng province, the richest in South Africa with the largest economy of any metropolitan region in Africa below the Sahara. Gauteng draws workers from the entire country and African continent. Even as the South African government increases regulation on the tobacco industry, smoking remains a favorite pastime for about one in four men.

Though South Africa one of the few African nations to impose restrictions on cigarette advertisements and smoking in public places, the country’s tobacco industry continues to see top-line growth due to higher unit prices.

Pharmacist and former smoker John Levine says that despite the decline in tobacco sales by volume, there is significant growth in revenues to tobacco companies – and to the state, which heavily taxes cigarettes.

Levine says stringently enforced laws restricting smoking in public areas have hit sales. But many people are turning to Chinese-made electronic cigarettes that burn tobacco cartridges, hoping to cut back or stop altogether.

“The hype now is the electronic cigarette,” Levine says. “The electronic cigarette does not make you stop smoking but it lessens the quantity that you smoke. You definitely need to kick the habit of smoking and for that you must only use will power.”

He says more must be done to educate ordinary South Africans about the dangers of smoking. Levine, 75, who came out of retirement to work in the Dischem chain, says he still has the scars of smoking on his lungs many years after quitting.

“I think it’s very unhealthy to smoke because when you smoke the nicotine is not so bad, it’s the tar that’s mixed with nicotine – the black tar goes into your lungs,” the pharmacist says. “I gave up smoking at 26 – I’m 75 and I went to the doctor’s the other day and he says to me: do you smoke? I said no and he said did you ever smoke, I said yes. He said well, the mark is showing on your lung that you do smoke after so many years. So smoking is only detrimental and for a lady it’s especially very, very bad.”

Peter Ucko is the director of South Africa’s National Council Against Smoking. He says anti-smoking campaigns are producing results – though much more needs to be done to warn the population of tobacco-related risks.

“Right now smoking prevalence in South Africa is about 22 percent amongst adults. We are quite pleased with that figure because from the 1990s when the smoking prevalence was around 37 percent, we have had a reduction virtually every year since then. From the 30 percent when we consumed about 40 billion sticks of cigarettes every year down to now 22 percent prevalence as we consume about 22 billion sticks a year,” says Ucko.

“It’s a whole package, it includes the tobacco control legislation which bans smoking in public areas and it deglamorizes smoking. Increasing tax has been a factor because as cigarettes are less affordable more and more people quit smoking and of course many do not start. We have had health warnings since 1995 – that’s been a contributory factor. Altogether it led to a reduction of prevalence of smoking in South Africa.”

Ucko says more stringent regulations are on the way – in particular to prohibit tobacco companies from targeting young people with more aggressive marketing strategies.

“Tobacco and smoking should never be advertized and popularized or glamorized so we banned advertising. You can now no longer smoke in any partially closed area. Regulations will come into place banning smoking in certain outdoor areas like sports stadiums and so on,” Ucko said.

“We will soon have picture health warnings on our packets and these pictures have been an effective deterrent both for people to start smoking and encouraging smokers when they see the pictures on the packets - remember pictures tell the truth about the dangers of smoking and the risks and it encourages smokers to quit.”

British American Tobacco dominates the South African market with 26 brands out of 34 on sale. J.T. International South Africa and Philip Morris are also players with the Camel and Marlboro brands, but their combined market share is a mere five percent.

Analysts say stringent laws, health concerns and higher prices are all hitting sales. But there are fears many poorer South Africans are buying illegal and more dangerous contraband cigarettes to beat rising costs.

Financial expert George Mutize says tobacco remains an important industry as exchange-listed companies continue to pour taxes into government. He adds that the companies also maintain so-called social portfolios to brush up their public images.

“In general the impact is positive,” Mutize maintains. “It provides employment for thousands of people who would otherwise be out of employment. At the same time the tobacco industry pays some of the highest taxes of any sector in the South African economy. In addition to that the tobacco industry provides an alternative investment vehicle on the stock exchange through the BAT listing so the industry plays an important role in the South African economy. There are negatives like the impact of tobacco on the health of locals as well as secondary smoking but I think overall it plays a positive role.”

So although the anti-smoking movement in South Africa has achieved significant gains against the habit, it has further to go to reduce the percent of smokers in the population to the single digits seen in many other countries, including in Africa.