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A warning for Africa on World No Tobacco Day

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Each year, in observance of World No Tobacco Day on 31 May, the World Health Organization (WHO) gives out prizes to people from six different regions who have done exceptional work in reducing tobacco consumption. Ahead of this year’s edition, it’s clear one region in particular could be doing more to combat what is still a major cause of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) worldwide.

Globally, of course, the trends look good overall. The number of smokers worldwide has fallen steadily over the last two decades. In fact, over the last 15 years, only 27 nations have seen smoking statistics rise. However, there is dark side to that story. 17 of those countries are in Africa, and much of the blame for this must be laid at the feet of Big Tobacco. Having been edged out of Western markets by stricter regulations, changing lifestyles and hefty taxation, cigarette companies are now exploiting lower-hanging fruits.

However, they’re not the only ones who should be held to account. Governments across the continent have been slow to adapt and have too often fallen prey to Big Tobacco’s lobbying tactics.

Dirty tactics from Big Tobacco

In recent years, governments around the globe have taken proactive measures to discourage their populations from taking up smoking, including banning advertising (in 29 countries representing 12% of the global population), pictorial warnings of health risks on packets (42 countries, 19%) and assistance with quitting (24 countries, 15%). Higher taxation has also made the habit less affordable and therefore less attractive, leading to a noticeable decline in its popularity in the Western world.

By contrast, the tobacco industry in Africa is booming. In 2010, the continent boasted the lowest death rate from tobacco of any region. Now, 80% of all smokers live in low- or low-to-middle-income countries (LLMICs) and Africa represents a rapidly swelling market. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, consumption of tobacco has risen by 52% from 1980. Its growing popularity is especially noticeable in strong economies like South Africa. And not surprisingly, Big Tobacco has taken advantage of these newly flourishing markets by exploiting loose legislation surrounding the industry to reap incredible profits.

Indeed, major tobacco firms are using every trick in the book to resist the same regulations that have hampered their business model in the West from coming into force in Africa. Despite claiming to support “sensible regulation,” organizations such as the Tobacco Institute of South Africa (TISA) continue to resist any increases in excise tax with all their might. Multinational tobacco companies have also sent letters using intimidating language to governments of at least nine countries, threatening them with litigation if they do not repeal proposed anti-smoking laws.

Adequate government response imperative

This is where the mettle of African lawmakers is so important. Despite claims to the contrary by Big Tobacco, introducing measures such as plain packaging, adequate warnings and higher taxation has dramatically curtailed the popularity of smoking in other countries. The WHO suggests a benchmark tax rate of 75% on the retail price of cigarettes, but across Africa that rate is generally far lower. Nigeria, for example, taxes stand at a mere 20% of the sale price.

Other countries such as South Africa do better (taxing 80%), though this can open the door to a thriving black market. It’s estimated that illicit trade accounts for up to 50% of all cigarettes in the country, which costs the treasury billions of rand in unpaid taxes and encourages working class South Africans to take up the habit.

Elsewhere, strides have been made by Ghana and Madagascar, which have banned all forms of tobacco advertising, and Burkina Faso, Djibouti and Kenya, which now include graphic images on packets (itself a key tool in educating illiterate members of the population). These measures have, of course, prompted a backlash from the industry – hence the aforementioned letters threatening litigation – so it remains to be seen if African governments can hold firm in their attempts to arrest the creep of Big Tobacco’s influence.

On the latter point, there are positive signs. Just a few days ago, Nigeria finally ratified the WHO’s Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, fourteen years after signing it. The Protocol requires signatories to adopt tried-and-tested measures for stopping black market tobacco. These include adopting track and trace technologies that empower authorities to track products throughout the global supply chain and make sure illicit tobacco isn’t slipping through the cracks.

Investing in a better tomorrow

If more African countries follow Nigeria’s lead, the continent as a whole will benefit from a major economic lift. A report from the WHO estimates that the poorest nations in the world could generate $350 billion by preventing and treating NCDs by 2025. For every $1 invested in curtailing tobacco use, they could see a return of $7.43. More importantly, such measures could theoretically save over eight million lives.

Of course, these public policy aims are of little interest to Big Tobacco. In 2015, the industry is estimated to have earned $62.3 billion. In the same year, over seven million people worldwide were killed from tobacco use. That equates to $9,730 per death. With such high stakes  – both in fiscal and human welfare terms – the next steps taken by African governments will be crucial. Bearing in mind the significance of May 31st, the time couldn’t be riper for them to strike back through positive investment and the very same “sensible regulation” that the industry purports to support.

Samantha is a freshly minted graduate in International Relations based in Cairo, currently working as a research assistant in a small think tank looking at development and inequality in Africa

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Africa

Money seized from Equatorial Guinea VP Goes into Vaccine

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As a classic precedence, the Justice Department of the United States has decided that $26.6m (£20m) seized from Equatorial Guinea’s Vice-President Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue be used on purchasing COVID-19 vaccines and other essential medical programmes in Equitorial Guinea, located on the west coast of central Africa.

“Wherever possible, kleptocrats will not be allowed to retain the benefits of corruption,” an official said in a statement, and reported by British Broadcasting Corporation.

Obiang was forced to sell a mansion in Malibu, California, a Ferrari and various Michael Jackson memorabilia as part of a settlement he reached with the US authorities in 2014 after being accused of corruption and money-laundering. He denied the charges.

The agreement stated that $10.3m of the money from the sale would be forfeited to the US and the rest would be distributed to a charity or other organisation for the benefit of the people of Equatorial Guinea, the Justice Department said.

The UN is to receive $19.25m to purchase and administer COVID-19 vaccines to at least 600,000 people in Equatorial Guinea, while a US-based charity is to get $6.35m for other medical programmes in Equatorial Guinea.

Teodorin Nguema has been working in position as Vice-President since 2012, before that he held numerous government positions, including Minister of Agriculture and Forestry. Known for his unquestionable lavish lifestyle, he has been the subject of a number of international criminal charges and sanctions for alleged embezzlement and corruption. He has a fleet of branded cars and a number of houses, and two houses alone in South Africa,

Teodorin Nguema has often drawn criticisms in the international media for lavish spending, while majority of the estimated 1.5 million population wallows in abject poverty. Subsistence farming predominates, with shabby infrastructure in the country. Equatorial Guinea consists of two parts, an insular and a mainland region. Equatorial Guinea is the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

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African Union’s Inaction on Ethiopia Deplorable – Open Letter

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The crisis in northern Ethiopia has resulted in millions of people in need of emergency assistance and protection. © UNICEF/Christine Nesbitt

A group of African intellectuals says in an open letter that it is appalled and dismayed by the steadily deteriorating situation in Ethiopia. The letter, signed by 58 people, says the African Union’s lack of effective engagement in the crisis is deplorable. The letter calls on regional bloc IGAD and the AU to “proactively take up their mandates with respect to providing mediation for the protagonists to this conflict”.

The letter also asks for “all possible political support” for the AU’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo, whose appointment was announced on August 26, 2021. A United Nations Security Council meeting on the same day welcomed the former Nigerian president’s appointment.

Earlier in August 2021, UN  chief Antonio Guterres appealed for a ceasefire, unrestricted aid access and an Ethiopian-led political dialogue. He told the council these steps were essential to preserve Ethiopia’s unity and the stability of the region and to ease the humanitarian crisis. He said that he had been in close contact with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and had received a letter from the leader of the Tigray region in response to his appeal. “The UN is ready to work together with the African Union and other key partners to support such a dialogue,” he said.

August 26, 2021 was only the second time during the conflict that the council held a public meeting to discuss the situation. Britain, Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway and the United States requested the session.

Fighting between the national government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front broke out in November 2020, leaving millions facing emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity, according to the United Nations. Both sides have been accused of atrocities.

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More African Countries Register Russia’s Sputnik Vaccine

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Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) is a specialized technical institution of the African Union (AU) that strengthens the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions as well as partnerships to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks, based on data-driven interventions and programmes.

During the outbreak of the coronavirus, the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), was established by African Union, as a component in support of the Africa Vaccine Strategy and was endorsed by the AU Bureau of Heads of State and Government on 20th of August 2020.

Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), has emphasized: “Africa has to team up with development partners to achieve its 60% continent-wide vaccination in the next two years. I think that is why we should as a collective of the continent, and of course, in partnership with the developed world make sure that Africa has a timely access to vaccines to meet our vaccination targets.”

An official media release in February 2021, the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team from the African Union (AU) informed that Russia would supply and deliver 300 million Sputnik V vaccines to Africa. That step was intended to support African countries to attain their targeted immunization of 60% of the population by the year-end. That vaccine story disappeared, but instead what become so common is the speedy registration of Sputnik V on bilateral basis in various African countries.

According to the latest, Nigeria has become the 68th country in the world to approve the Russian vaccine. The use of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine has been approved in Nigeria, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) said in an official statement.

“The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund) announces the approval of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine against coronavirus by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control of Nigeria (NAFDAC). Nigeria has become the 68th country in the world to approve the Russian vaccine. Total population of all countries, where Sputnik V is approved for use, now exceeds 3.7 billion people, which is nearly half of the global population,” the statement said.

“Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa, and the approval of Sputnik V will provide for using one of the safest and most effective vaccines in the world. Sputnik V is based on a proven human adenoviral vectors platform and is successfully used in over 50 countries. Approval in Nigeria will make an important contribution to the country’s fight against the pandemic,” CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) Kirill Dmitriev said.

Besides Nigeria, other African countries have registered Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Reportedly, the vaccine has been registered in Algeria, Angola, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Tunisia, the Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zimbabwe.

Russia’s drive to share Sputnik V vaccine, of course, offers a chance to raise its image and strengthen alliances in Africa. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation has made efforts promoting the vaccine using all its channels. But supply and delivery have largely lagged behind, the pledges have simply not been fulfilled. Russian authorities have oftentimes said that they would step up efforts for fruitful cooperation in combating coronavirus in Africa.

Promising more than can be delivered appears to be a universal problem with coronavirus vaccines, and it is a real risk for Russia as well, said Theresa Fallon, Director of the Brussels-based Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies. “They have won the gold medal for creating this very effective vaccine,” she said. “But the problem is how are they going to implement production and delivery?”

Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), with profit motivation, has attempted supplying the Russian vaccines through, Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum, from the Monarch family and a third party in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to a number of African countries. For instance, the Republic of Ghana reportedly signed US$64.6 million contract for Sputnik V vaccine from Russia through Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum. It was double the price from the producer as reported in the media.

On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin has noted, in a speech early September, that advanced countries that produce vaccines against the coronavirus do little to protect humanity from the pandemic.

“The benefits of vaccination are enjoyed mostly by advanced economies. The bulk of the vaccines is made there, and it is used to protect their own population. But very little is being done to protect humanity in the broad sense,” Putin said at the plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, the Far East of Russia. “This is very bad for the producers, because all this boomerangs around the globe. For instance, in Africa the level of protection with vaccines is minimal, but contacts with the African countries continue. There is no getting away from this. This infection will return again and again.”

According to an official release obtained late February, the Sputnik V vaccine the following advantages:

• Efficacy of Sputnik V is 91.6% as confirmed by the data published in the Lancet, one of the world’s oldest and most respected medical journals; It is one of only three vaccines in the world with efficacy of over 90%; Sputnik V provides full protection against severe cases of COVID-19. 

• The Sputnik V vaccine is based on a proven and well-studied platform of human adenoviral vectors, which cause the common cold and have been around for thousands of years. 

• Sputnik V uses two different vectors for the two shots in a course of vaccination, providing immunity with a longer duration than vaccines using the same delivery mechanism for both shots. 

• The safety, efficacy and lack of negative long-term effects of adenoviral vaccines have been proven by more than 250 clinical studies over two decades. 

• The developers of the Sputnik V vaccine are working collaboratively with AstraZeneca on a joint clinical trial to improve the efficacy of AstraZeneca vaccine. 

• There are no strong allergies caused by Sputnik V. 

• The price of Sputnik V is less than $10 per shot, making it affordable around the world. 

In February, peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet published an analysis from Phase III clinical trial of the Russian vaccine, showing its 91.6-percent efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19. The Sputnik V vaccine was developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology.

Sputnik V was registered in Russia on August 11, 2020 as the world’s first officially registered coronavirus vaccine. Russian vaccines have advantages as no deaths have been reported after vaccination with the Sputnik V, Alexander Gintsburg, Director of the Gamaleya Center, the vaccine developer, said and was reported by TASS News Agency. “As of today, no deaths after vaccination with Sputnik V have been registered,” he said.

Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) is Russia’s sovereign wealth fund established in 2011 to make equity co-investments, primarily in Russia, alongside reputable international financial and strategic investors. RDIF acts as a catalyst for direct investment in the Russian economy. RDIF’s management is based in Moscow.

In Africa, during first of September, the coronavirus-related death toll has topped 196,190, while more than 6.9 million recoveries have been reported. South Africa accounts for a majority of coronavirus cases and deaths across Africa – 2,777,659 and 82,261 respectively. The death toll in Tunisia climbed to 23,451, and 664,034 cases have been confirmed. Egypt recorded 16,736 deaths and 288,441 coronavirus cases.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia is ranked second to South Africa (308,134 cases and 4,675 deaths) and is followed by Kenya (235,863 cases and 4,726 deaths) and Nigeria (191,805 and 2,455). The total number of COVID-19 cases has reached almost 8 million in Africa, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Office for Africa.

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