Tobacco use is the most preventable cause of death worldwide and is responsible for the deaths of approximately half of its long-term users. Tobacco kills one out of two long term users, or one person every six seconds. An often-quoted statistic is that tobacco use killed 100 million people in the 20th century and will kill one billion people in the 21st century if current trends continue. In 2011, tobacco use killed more than 6 million people, nearly 80% in low- and middle-income countries. By 2030, more than 8 million people will die annually from tobacco use.
As global patterns in tobacco use change, the burden of death can be expected to shift dramatically from the developed world to Africa. It has been estimated that over the next two decades, 70% of tobacco deaths will be in developing countries. About 80% of the world's smokers now live in low and middle income countries, at least in part due to a lack of adequate tobacco controls. While significant variance exists in smoking prevalence between African countries, most are in early stages of the tobacco epidemic.
Tobacco use in Africa has received little attention. The perceived low smoking prevalence in Africa combined with high smoking prevalence in other developing regions, alongside the more immediate need for interventions with infectious diseases, has resulted in a low priority for tobacco control in Africa. However, improving economic growth and health have resulted in growth in the number of smokers and cigarettes smoked in Africa. Africa presents the greatest threat in terms of future growth in smoking. Tobacco companies want to expand their consumer base in Africa, and have targeted new prospective smokers in their marketing, particularly women and younger groups.
Many countries have passed legislation that restricts the marketing and sale of tobacco products. These restrictions, have led to decreases in tobacco sales in Europe, Australia and North America. This is why the tobacco industry is scrambling to secure its future in Africa. To ensure their profits, the tobacco companies 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. Encouraged by blossoming economic growth and a youthful population of prospective life-long smokers, the tobacco companies 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, tobacco companies 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 characterized by political instability, social inequality, and a weak legislative environment – the perfect setting for the industry to sell cheaply and market its products freely to key consumer groups, such as women and youth. 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 BAT’s 1992-1996 five-year plan which talked about seeking to “aggressively and consistently” exploit these “profitable opportunities”, revealed that tobacco companies have strategically planned their expansion across Africa for more than two decades. To expand their consumer base, they target new prospective smokers in their 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.
Africa’s Tobacco future
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 could increase more than seven times 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 in Africa, the tobacco industry is responsible for up to 4% of global deforestation 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.