Nearly 80 percent of the world’s one billion smokers live in low and middle-income countries. According to data culled from the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco consumption is prevalent in Africa, as one in every five African adolescents uses tobacco.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) solidified tobacco use as a public health epidemic, identifying it as one cause of premature death. This categorization has moved African governments to chart their path toward creating a tobacco control policy. While they have dubbed Mauritius and South Africa as leaders in the management of tobacco consumption, we need to understand that policies that do not take a consumer-centric approach to tobacco control often cause more damage than good.
Almost all the countries in Africa have ratified the FCTC policies, except for Malawi, South Sudan, and Eritrea. All these signees have contributed to limiting consumer choice in one way or the other. For instance, South Africa implemented a tobacco control policy which resulted in sharp increases in excise tax between 1994 and 2009. They capped this with strong administrative control, and even though it reduced underage smoking, it made cigarettes more expensive. In Mauritius, the government increased excise duty on tobacco to over 80 percent and banned e-cigarette sales and distribution, making accessibility difficult for consumers.
Another example is Kenya, which increased the excise tax on tobacco products to 38.5 percent yet has many adolescent smokers. Some of these country-specific policies, especially high taxes and the banning of tobacco products, make the latter more expensive.
What is a better approach to tobacco control?
The tobacco control policy implemented by these countries is chirping off the rights of tobacco consumers; the freedom of choice, which is a basic fundamental human right for all humans. The government is missing an integral point. No matter the ban or tax imposition, people will always find ways to buy these products.
Yes, banning smoking in public spaces could be a good measure for reducing exposure to second-hand smoking. Interestingly, about 13 African countries have started smoke-free ban laws covering all indoor public places, workplaces, and public transport. While South Africa has introduced excise duty on electronic vapor products, Uganda, Seychelles, Mauritius, Gambia, and Ethiopia have also banned vapes. Yet, the smoke ban has not reduced the number of deaths from tobacco products in Africa.
The government also mandated that pictorial warnings should be on cigarette packs. Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and 11 other African countries follow this to the letter. A case in point is a Kenyan advertisement policy that affixes graphic health warnings on cigarette packs suggesting that tobacco use causes impotence. Despite this extreme measure, the East African country still has the second-largest number of school-going adolescent smokers, proving that consumer choices are not always changeable through regulations.
Out of the African countries captured in the 2021 WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, only Egypt, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Morocco had tax structures that demanded over 75 percent tax on cigarettes. Fifteen countries had 50 percent, while 21 countries have less than 50 percent taxation on cigarettes. Implementing a tax hike strategy harms tobacco consumers more than the good the government thinks it derives.
Instead of imposing high taxes on cigarette manufacturers, a better approach will be to undertake tobacco harm reduction (THR), which is proven to be a better approach for tobacco control. This alternative assumes that the journey to smoking cessation can be difficult for many smokers and encourages them to try out less harmful alternatives that will gradually wean them from nicotine addiction. It is consumer-centric and more effective. Healthier alternatives like electronic nicotine and non-nicotine delivery systems have shown successful results in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Japan, and Korea.
Banning smoking in public places has yet to have the desired effect on changing user attitudes. Also, increasing tax policy on tobacco and other related products discourages consumers from choosing healthier alternatives, in which case, they get stuck smoking expensive cigarettes. Such actions increase their chances of developing smoke-related illnesses.
Indeed, the best policy option for African governments is to adopt a THR approach, allowing consumers access to healthier alternatives like vapes and e-cigarettes instead of overtaxing and keeping them out of the reach of users.
Olumayowa Okediran is a Senior Fellow at African Liberty and Chairman of the Foundation for Consumer Freedom Advancement.