A warning for Africa on World No Tobacco Day

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 Maloof
Samantha Maloof
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