African countries need tighter controls to curb growing tobacco use
Global average smoking rates have declined over the past 12 years, with the proportion of people aged 15 or older who smoke rising from 22.6% in 2007 to 19.6% in 2019.
However, tobacco use still represents a significant health, economic and social burden worldwide. In fact, some countries – mainly in Africa – are experiencing an increase in smoking prevalence. The latest Tobacco Atlas shows that, worldwide, 1.13 billion people were current smokers in 2019. And 8.67 million deaths were attributable to smoking.
The Tobacco Atlas – a partnership between Vital Strategies and Tobacconomics at the University of Illinois at Chicago – is a free online resource that examines the nature and extent of the tobacco epidemic.
Tobacco use also represents a considerable economic burden. This includes the cost of treating tobacco-related diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and ischemic heart disease, as well as lost productivity due to disease and premature death. Globally, the total economic cost of tobacco use is over US$1.4 trillion per year, or about 1.8% of the world’s annual gross domestic product (GDP).
Africa currently has the lowest smoking prevalence rates in the world. But the number of smokers in Africa is set to rise – the region has been tagged as the future epicenter of the tobacco epidemic due to rapid population growth and intensive marketing efforts by the tobacco industry.
Due to the time lag between smoking and the onset of illness and death, this means that the number of Africans who will die each year from tobacco-related diseases is likely to increase. The costs of treating tobacco-related diseases will therefore become an increasing economic burden in these countries.
However, it is possible to avoid this. Key steps include introducing strong prevention policies.
Curb tobacco consumption
Tobacco kills half of its long-term users. Therefore, the survival of the tobacco industry depends on the ability of young people to become addicted to tobacco products. Traditional advertising and promotion of tobacco products has been banned in most African countries. But the tobacco industry has developed new ways to keep its products in the public eye.
In Zimbabwe, for example, China Tobacco established the China Tobacco Ma Bo Hope Primary School in 2019. In this way, the industry uses corporate social responsibility to gain legitimacy, build public trust and promote its business interests. . From building schools to funding scholarships, tobacco companies use these publicized acts of goodwill to gain influence with governments and try to silence life-saving tobacco control policies.
One way governments are fighting back is through counter-advertising campaigns that educate young people about the tactics the industry uses to target them. This can be done through mass marketing campaigns on the harms of smoking and the introduction of plain packaging and graphic health warnings on tobacco packs.
These tools are underused in Africa. Between 2018 and 2020, only 15 African countries conducted at least one mass media campaign on the harms of smoking. And not a single African country has laws that mandate plain packaging.
Taxation is another possible line of attack. Research shows that tobacco taxation is effective in reducing smoking, especially among young people.
This is especially true for young people in low- and middle-income countries. Global studies show that young people in these countries are more sensitive to changes in cigarette prices than their counterparts in high-income countries.
The policy implication for African countries is that excise taxes should be increased to reduce youth smoking. This would go a long way in preventing the outbreak of the epidemic.
But, as the Tobacco Atlas points out, African countries have the lowest tobacco excise duty policies in the world.
The tobacco control policy can be used in two ways:
- discourage people from starting to smoke
- to help smokers quit or reduce their tobacco use.
Policy recommendations for prevention and cessation strategies are similar (tobacco tax increases). But their profitability is different.
The most important benefit of prevention is that the costs of smoking are completely avoided and better health is immediately beneficial to economic performance. The benefits of cessation are essentially the reduction of costs associated with current and future tobacco consumption.
African governments must see this distinction. Policy makers in the region do not seem to appreciate the opportunity they have to save their people and their economies from the negative consequences of tobacco use. It’s time to act.
Sam Filby, Research Fellow, Economics of Excise Goods Research, University of Cape Town
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.