Africa's Tobacco Epidemic
Market expansion into emerging economies
Since the World Health Organisation adopted its landmark Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which entered into force in 2005, many countries have passed legislation that restricts the marketing and sale of tobacco products. These restrictions, in combination with increasing awareness of the consequences of smoking and a growing understanding of the ethically questionable actions of tobacco companies, have led to decreases in tobacco sales in Europe, Australia, North America and Latin America.
To ensure their profits TTCs are increasingly shifting their business to relatively untapped markets in parts of the world where the opportunity for growth is largely unrestricted. Nowhere is this underexploited prospect as ripe for the picking as Africa. TTCs are expanding into African countries, where, excluding South Africa, the tobacco market grew by almost 70% through the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century.
As they expand into new African markets, TTCs exert their political and economic influence to shape business environments that are profitable for them but costly to these nations. Many countries on the continent are characterised by political instability, social inequality, and a weak legislative environment- the perfect setting for the industry to sell cheaply and market its products with limited restriction.
Exploitation of Africa
While tobacco consumption globally is decreasing, by 2030 the number of smokers in Africa is anticipated to rise by nearly 40% from 2010 levels. This is the largest expected increase in the world.
Internal industry documents, such as those of BAT, reveal that tobacco companies have strategically planned their expansion across Africa for over two decades, seeking to “aggressively and consistently” exploit these “profitable opportunities”. To expand their consumer base, they target new prospective smokers in their promotional marketing, particularly women and younger groups. Often the methods of marketing and selling their products, such as selling single stick cigarettes and sponsoring youth-oriented events, involve violating international frameworks and even the industry’s own mandatory marketing principles.
A whole different ball game
Over the past few decades, TTCs such as BAT, Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco International have perfected political tactics and economic techniques to stall, influence, and where necessary bypass restrictions on their business. In Africa, TTCs have been accused of: “blackmailing” politicians pushing for tobacco control; fuelling poverty by buying tobacco leaf from hundreds of thousands of farmers at paltry prices; offering free cigarettes to children to try to hook them; hiring young ‘cigarette girls’ to attractively endorse their products; gaining the trust of communities by providing electricity for small towns or providing hospital supplies for children; causing expansive environmental damage to natural resources; and infiltrating government bodies at the national to international level to thwart attempts to regulate their business practices.
A smoky future in Africa
The situation in Africa looks set to get worse. About 77 million African adults currently smoke. If the tobacco industry is allowed to operate largely unregulated, this is expected to increase more than 7 times over to 572 million within the century. The economic, social, and public health ramifications of this growth will be unprecedented.
It is not just public health that will suffer. The industry is responsible for up to 4% of global deforestation- 12% in Southern Africa- and 600 million trees are cut down to facilitate tobacco production every year. Tobacco leaf degrades the soil of more nutrients than many other crops, often making soil unviable to grow food essentials. Estimates suggest that if the land used to grow tobacco was instead used to cultivate food crops, 10-20 million people could be consistently fed. This is critical since many of the tobacco growing nations in Africa, such as Malawi, have large proportions of the population- tobacco farmers included- that are malnourished.
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