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Africa: WHO Enlists Politicians in Anti-Tobacco War

by Judith AchiengInter Press Service
October 25th, 2000

NAIROBI -- The World Health Organisation (WHO), is targeting African policy-makers, to counter the intensified marketing campaigns by tobacco multinationals in the continent.

The tobacco "epidemic", according to WHO, is increasingly becoming a major problem for developing countries, accounting for up to 80 percent of global cigarette consumption.

"Tobacco is a communicable disease transmitted by a very powerful vector, advertisement," G. L Moswemyane, WHO's environmental health officer in Botswana told an inter country parliamentary meeting on tobacco here.

WHO data indicates that smoking is increasingly a problem of developing countries, with a steady upward rise during the last decade, estimated at 2.5 percent higher than the rate of increase noted in other developing countries.

Smoking prevalence in the continent ranges from between 15 percent to an approximated high of 67 percent, a factor largely attributed to intense promotional campaigns by the tobacco industry targeting youths in all the countries in the region.

"It was rare to see young people smoking. Now it is a common thing among young boys, girls and sex workers," Ashbie Mweemba, a health Official from Zambia, said at the meeting being held in the Kenyan capital.

A recent WHO study conducted in Nairobi revealed a high level of tobacco use, 67 percent of men and 32 percent of women were reported smokers, a trend applicable to nearly all African countries.

"Their new market is Africa. They are being sued elsewhere or people are beginning to stop smoking. The multinationals sponsor activities associated with young people, such as pool and soccer," Mweemba notes.

Experts attending the conference expressed concern that most young people started with tobacco as an entry point to drug abuse and other anti-social habits.

"The issue of tobacco is a special case," explains Samboujang Conteh, who heads Raid Gambia, a non-governmental organisation that deals with public health issues.

"By addressing tobacco, we are dealing with drug abuse and HIV/AIDS spread through the sharing of needles."

The meeting, which draws participants from 21 English speaking African countries, aims at mobilising parliamentarians and other public health leaders to draw collective action for comprehensive national tobacco control policies in the region.

Many African countries have anti-tobacco legislation, the conference heard, but lack capacity to implement the laws. Little information is available for the public on the effects of tobacco on health, militating against implementation of tobacco control legislation.

For example in Zambia, the anti-tobacco law stipulates that children under the age of 16 should be denied access to cigarettes, but retailers still openly sell them to children under age.

In Nairobi Kenya, street children, as young as four, buy cigarettes for their own use from vendors. "Right now, most Africans don't know there are repercussions that come with smoking," says Mweemba.

African governments are being encouraged to increase tobacco tax revenue, which in turn would be directed to tobacco control.

Rising the price of tobacco has been seen as one of the simplest and most effective methods of significantly reducing tobacco use, especially in developing countries and among the youth, who have less disposable income.

The power and popularity of a tobacco tax increase in turn, according to WHO, can be dramatically enhanced by using the revenue to fund tobacco control.

The week-long meeting will also address the challenges of globalisation, which restricts the ability of countries to regulate tobacco, a problem which has spread through a set of complex factors that transcend national borders.

The meeting is part of the WHO global initiative on tobacco control. WHO has also began negotiations for the establishment of a Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

The framework convention is expected to strengthen government legislation by addressing tobacco-related agricultural policies in producing countries, prices and taxes of tobacco and the controversial issue of advertising.

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