The Unscrupulous methods of the tobacco industry in Africa

Africa is the remaining and last Non- smoking region of the world to be conquered by the tobacco industry .

“Become your own boss” promised British American Tobacco in Kenya. “Think and win” was the slogan  of the company  in the Uganda Action. Behind the slogans hid cheap Sweepstakes. The participants had to buy the company produced cigarettes in order  to participate in the lottery. The clearly well chosen message was to manipulate and take advantage of the mostly poor and vulnerable of the people, for a life beyond the fields and farms. The desire of the poor to alleviate themselves from poverty is the hope of the industry, which has seen its profits in the west rapidly dwindling.

A person who drives today a kilometer into the city of a developing country is 80 times more likely courted by the tobacco industry with huge billboard advertisements than in a developed country and he has five different ways to buy cigarettes, including buying a single cigarette a practice that is banned in many countries, and for good reason. “Children cannot afford whole packets.  So the industry ensures that their product is sold individually,” says Anna Gilmore. The public health expert at the University of Bath has collected the information  and concludes: “As profits in the industrialized countries sink  the tobacco companies have found new customers especially young people in the poorer countries”. Gilmore believes that the future of the tobacco industry will be decided mainly in Africa.

“The industry can win over millions of potential customers”

The sub-Saharan region has long been the last Non smoking area in the world. Meanwhile,”the tobacco epidemic has reached Africa and is at its earliest stage,” says the professor. Accurate data on cigarette consumption are scarce. But epidemiologists who searched the available data in the past year, estimate that in the sub-Saharan states about 14 percent of men and two percent of women smoke. These are fantastically low smoking rates. But they also mean that “the tobacco industry can still win millions of  potential customers,” says Gilmore.

Thereby Big Tobacco reaches deep into the bag of tricks that they have filled in their golden years. In South Africa, for example, the producers of Benson & Hedges dealt very successfully with banning television advertising. By offering to sponsor cricket, the company negotiated with the cricket association to rid of the “Night Time Cricket” after which the team got new colorful uniforms and had to bend rules by which the game concluded faster giving the the sport primetime on TV along with the sponsors message.

In many places in Africa, the advertising is such blatant that it can only be compared to TV shows like  “Mad Men” shown in the West: Every fifth school child in Zambia has been offered free cigarettes  before. In Mauritania, 21 percent of students own shirts, pins or paraphernalia with tobacco advertising. Nearly 70 percent of adolescents in Niger regularly see poster advertising for cigarettes, and the Ivory Coast, it is almost impossible to escape posters with happy, people who smoke. In South Africa, Mauritania and Ivory Coast there are now more than ten per cent of 13-to 15-year-olds who smoke, warns the American health authority CDC.

“Without tobacco, there is no money to pay for medicine in Malawi.”

The companies benefit that the non smoking protection is not just high on the priority list in many African countries. This is due to not only the lack of capacity of a region that is struggling with devastating infectious diseases. One reason is that the continent as a tobacco producer is becoming increasingly important. While the acreage for the Nicotiana plants in the United States and Europe has reduced, the opposite has happened in Africa. In the past decade acreage has increased by 66 percent.

The increasing financial dependence on the tobacco industry is being exploited by the companies. In Malawi  for example, they have formulated and spread the propaganda that without tobacco the health situation will deteriorate because no one will have money to buy medicine or pay hospital bills. The threats seems to function as the tobacco producing countries like Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique have not ratified the global agreement to curb tobacco consumption.

So the future looks bleak, currently men  in poor countries of Europe and in the Western Pacific are leaders in tobacco consumption. Already in 2025  African men will have caught up, as forecasted by scientists last year in the medical journal Lancet. Cancer and other diseases associated with smoking are likely to increase significantly and this is problematic since this poor countries are ill equipped to handle this ailments, currently only 20 percent of the developing countries have sufficient capacity for the radiation treatment of cancer patients and only 40 percent of this countries can offer access to chemotherapy treatment according to the International Cancer Research Agency. Onkologists are  on short supply  in  all African countries.

“It would be ironic if HIV is defeated, only to see the saved dying from tobacco diseases,” warned the UN  health agency WHO. That was 15 years ago. Since then, the scenario has become more realistic.

Peter Omondi