Article written

  • on 31.01.2014
  • at 12:00 PM
  • by Kevin Hind

Blowing Smoke in Africa: Big Tobacco and Child Smokers 0

In Mtwapa, Kenya, palm trees shade 14-year-old Destiny and his young friends as they overlook a warm, white beach that backs onto the shimmering Indian Ocean. Clouding the pristine view are puffs of smoke from cigarettes they’ve purchased for a few cents per single stick at the propped-up convenience shack on the corner.

“All of us, all of my friends smoke,” says Destiny, inhaling deeply from his cigarette before exhaling the smoke slowly through his nose. “We see [tobacco advertisements] everywhere, and the cigarettes are cheap.”

As the popularity of smoking has slowed in the developed world, it has spread rapidly in developing countries. And as the West has tightened regulations and tried to push Big Tobacco out of the limelight, cigarette companies have turned their attention to African markets, and young people are taking up the habit.

It is estimated that between 82,000 and 99,000 young people start smoking each day across the world, the vast majority in developing countries, and smokers who start as children are more likely to become lifetime addicts as the number of cigarettes required to establish a nicotine addiction is lower than in adults. Tobacco dependence is regarded by many as a paediatric disease, but action to combat the spread of smoking addiction has been slow.

The children are the future

There are currently four multinational tobacco companies working towards increasing their African profits and market share. One of them is Philip Morris International, and although John Fielder, the company’s Global External Communications Officer, insists that “Philip Morris International has a very small market share in the region,” this is changing. The company’s brands include L&M and Marlboro, and the multinational opened a factory in Senegal in 2009, employing 230 people.

Meanwhile, tobacco is being marketed aggressively across the continent, helped by the fact that many countries have yet to establish regulations and restrictions on cigarette advertising. Tobacco ads regularly feature scantily-clad girls and film stars, while a recent study found that many basketball courts in Senegalese towns have cigarette brands’ logos painted on the walls. In Guinea, so-called ‘cigarette girls’ are employed to go around nightclubs, corner stores and public places to encourage youths to smoke branded cigarettes with aspirational-sounding names such as Diplomat, High Society, Sportsman and Champion.

Furthermore, across the continent, the possibility of buying single cigarettes or smaller (and therefore cheaper) ‘kiddie packs’ ensures that smoking is affordable to far larger demographic. Single cigarettes are also used by some youths as appetite suppressants, especially in areas where adequate nutrition can be hard to come by. Asked if he and his friends have had their lunch, Destiny looks at his half-lit cigarette and replies, “this is much better, no?”

Tobacco companies deny they target young people. “We do not advertise to children anywhere in the world,” says Simon Evans, Group Press Officer at Imperial Tobacco Group PLC, “our products are marketed to adult smokers and in doing so we employ the same responsible standards in Africa as we would in any Western market.” But many academics and activists disagree.

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By Ravi JaipaulThink Africa Press 

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