Re-engagement of the tobacco Debate in Africa; Empirical scientific, economic, social and political issues


The debate on tobacco control is rather a generational one that has transcended decades if not centuries. There seems to have emerged various schools of thought on the subject, which have shaped the perception, thoughts and direction of the global community in pre-world war times through to post world periods. Whichever way it is perceived, these historical antecedents having determined the posture of our society towards the control and regulation of tobacco and its related products, need to be examined circumspectively, through scientific and empirical analysis given the volume of knowledge and technology at our disposal. It is therefore the focus of this piece, to move the dialogue away from the two most popular views; anti-tobacco and pro-tobacco perspectives on tobacco regulation and control, particularly in Africa, to a much more evident based theory of facts examination. This will be achieved by answering the following questions; why the regulation and control of tobacco, who is purportedly protected under the regulation, the effects of the regulation, alternative measures of dealing with the issue of tobacco.

Control of tobacco, why?

Studies conducted in the mid-fifties of the 20th Century, pioneered by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that smoking was harmful as it was then identified as a primary cause of lung cancers in most adults. Other scientists used this research as the plank upon which to identify the causative agent (Chemical) in tobacco and its related products. The scientific debate has never been the same ever since as scientist have disagreed over the years on the carcinogenic components of tobacco. What has not been disputed is the chemical toxicity of the elements contained in tobacco and subsequently cigarettes. The relationship between the propensity of  an individual to contract lung cancer and that that the individual smokes, or exact chemical in tobacco responsible for lung cancer is yet to be empirically established. Granted the truism of the position of the EPA, the question will therefore be whether society should protect smokers against “dangers” they are bound to encounter by controlling tobacco consumption. Universal certainty will or at least has been the position adopted in response to this question, which is contingent on the premise that smokers are usually unaware of the dangers they are bound to encounter when they smoke, thus all relevant information concerning the health hazards should be communicated. Take note of the premise. Assuming the distribution of information in the tobacco industry between and among consumers and producers was effective, and people were completely aware of the possible hazards, the state had no business of regulation and control. A research conducted by Khwaja et al. (2009)[1] which was aimed at examining the relative accuracy of mature smokers’ risk perceptions about future survival and a range of morbidities and disabilities concluded that there was no evidence of systematic misinformation about the health consequences of smoking and thus no reason to believe that it would inhibit quitting. This would therefore mean that, even if efficient information was readily available, there would not necessarily be a decline in the level of smoking. It is for this singular empirical reason that attempts by governments and regulatory authorities over the years to mandate tobacco and cigarette producing companies to boldly indicate “Cigarette Smoking can be dangerous to your health” on tobacco products has not yielded much results as intended in both developed and developing countries.

Another interesting but compelling argument for the control of tobacco and its related products is centered on the youth. All products in an effectively competitive environment tend to be advert elastic. This economic maxim should not end here but must be further interrogated to establish the section of consumers and what dynamics result in the increase in consumption given an increase in advertisement and promotion. Advertisement of tobacco and its related products is perceived to be an inducing factor encouraging the youth to smoke, and subsequently suffer from the “perceptive dangers” science has disagreed upon for a long time. It is a known fact that most drug users do not acquire the habit as a result of advertisement and promotion by companies. Come to think of it, how many companies advertise the use of “cocaine”, “heroine”, “weed”, “opium” among others? The consumption of these products should have declined by now considering the period of time within which war has been waged on them. In some countries, there rather seems to be an increase in the consumption of these products. In Indonesia for example, the consumption of opium has been on the ascendency for over a decade, when there is not a single company producing and advertising opium; which is more dangerous to the health of its smokers than the perceived dangers of tobacco. What makes the regulator think that a young man will purchase and smoke cigarette when he was not smoking before, only because it was placed on the shelf of a vendor? Clearly there has to be another medium through which the youth are influenced to take on this habit rather than advertisement promotion by vendors. Regulators will have to device other strategies to deal with the “perceived danger” if there is any at all.

Why is tobacco really controlled? Is it as a result of the inherent dangers it poses to the smokers? If so then the laws should be established to determine the volume and quality of food people eat as “gluttons”, consumers of fatty and junky foods all have some severe dangers they encounter later in life. The usual defence provided in these cases is that, those choices have no bearing whatsoever on the choices that other consumers (healthy food) make. Thus the state or any regulator cannot determine what I choose to eat (unhealthy food) in so far as it is my decision. Question: should the smoker not be left to make his decision too? Yes he should, which annuls the role of the regulator/state in any attempt to control the tobacco industry. The counter argument for this principle has been that, smokers do not only suffer the “dangers” of their decisions as in the case of the unwholesome food consumers, they exhale some of the smoke into the environment, which “harms” non-smokers for decisions they have made-not to smoke.

Assuming the above is held in truism, then the entire debate will shift the effects of the decisions made, and not the decisions in themselves. Thus when people decide to smoke “wee/indian hemp”, opium, and other drugs, we must assess the effects of their decisions just as we would for the consumer of unwholesome food. This opens up the arguments further to an analysis of social costs and benefits. The consumer of unwholesome food which could be cancerous in the future has at least no social costs; his decision does not immediately affect anyone now even though there could be some remote future costs such as social health care cost to the state. The same cannot be said of smokers (of tobacco, indian hemp, opium etc) as their decision is perceived to have an immediate and long term social cost. The solution to these “harmful” products (indian hemp, opium etc) has been an outright ban in most countries, and taxes. This is because the immediate social costs are real; indulgence in social vices such as rape, armed robbery etc. The case against tobacco has not been an outright ban. Could it be that the immediate social costs are over-exaggerated? Or that it will be difficult to implement such a ban as put across by Jeanie et al[2] “if drugs cannot be kept out of the highest security prisons it would be impossible to keep tobacco out of society”.

It is imperative that the debate on social costs and benefits of smoking be assessed based on empirical economic evidence in our quest to identifying the appropriate mechanism for controlling tobacco (if there really is the need to), as the war on tobacco companies has not yielded any meaningful results, which happens to be the focus of the series of papers to be issued on the subject.


In summary, assuming the scientific conclusion on the use of tobacco is altruistically valid, that the primary smoker is in the danger of contracting lung cancer. This is privately that individuals decision as they are mostly aware of the danger and yet do not refrain from the use of tobacco. The regulation and control of tobacco which emanates primarily from the social cost and benefit of will be quick to admit that the dangers confronting primary smokers is at the same degree as that of non-smokers. Is this conclusion valid? How should we deal with the net social cost if it exists? What is the anecdote of the African situation? These will be explored in the subsequent articles.

IMANInsight is an analytical platform for challenging conventional thinking. It is hosted by Ghana-based think tank, IMANI Ghana, (

[1] Khwaja, A., D. Silverman, F. Sloan and Y. Wang (2009) ‘Are Mature Smokers Misinformed?’, Journal of Health Economics, 28, 2, 385–397.

[2] Cameron J.,Craven B. M., and Marlow M. L., (2011) “Control policies to combat the health risks from smoking and passive smoking”. Institute of Economic Affairs tobacco regulation article. 

The tobacco debate