In Zimbabwe, for example, China Tobacco set up the China Tobacco Ma Bo Hope Primary School in 2019. In this way the industry is using corporate social responsibility to gain legitimacy, build public trust and further its business interests. From building schools to funding scholarships, tobacco companies use these publicised acts of goodwill to gain influence with governments and try to mute life-saving tobacco control policies.
One way for governments to fight back is through the use of 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 tobacco use and through 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 ran at least one mass-media campaign about the harms of tobacco use. And not a single African country has laws that mandate plain packaging.
Taxation is another possible line of attack. Research shows tobacco taxation is effective in reducing smoking, especially among young people.
This is particularly true for youngsters in low- to middle-income countries. Global-level studies show young people in these countries are more responsive to cigarette price changes than their counterparts in high-income countries.
The policy implication for African countries is that excise taxes should be increased to reduce smoking among young people. This would go a long way to preventing the onset of the epidemic.
But as the Tobacco Atlas highlights, African countries have the weakest tobacco excise tax policies in the world.
Tobacco control policy can be used in two ways:
The recommended policies for prevention and cessation strategies are similar (increasing tobacco taxes), but their cost-effectiveness is different.
The most important benefit of prevention is that costs of smoking are avoided altogether and better health is good for economic performance immediately. The benefits of cessation are essentially the reduction in costs attached to current and future tobacco use.
African governments need to see this distinction. Policymakers in the region don’t appear to appreciate the opportunity they have to save their populations and economies from the negative consequences of tobacco use. The time to act is now.
Sam Filby is research officer, research on the economics of excisable products, University of Cape Town.
This article was first published by The Conversation.