Tobacco consumption has been a contentious issue for decades, given that the substance is one of the major causes of terminal ailments. This was why the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) labeled tobacco use as a public health epidemic and planned policies toward tobacco control.
Despite smokers being warned of the liability of dying young, users continue indulging themselves, and smoking rates haven’t been reduced. This tells why governments have adopted several methods to control the demand for tobacco products. One of the approaches the government uses is increasing excise duties on tobacco, which leads to increased consumer prices of tobacco products. Does this have any effect? That’s what I’m hoping to let you see here but first, let’s get the background right.
Forty African countries under the FCTC have high excise duties of 75 percent on tobacco products. In South Africa, the government implemented a tobacco control policy that increased the excise tax on tobacco products and recently proposed a bill on the e-cigarette tax. In Kenya, the government has already increased the excise tax on tobacco products to 38.5 percent and plans to raise taxes for safer nicotine alternatives soon. Uganda, Seychelles, Mauritius, Gambia, and Ethiopia have also placed banned vapes.
It is clear that despite the creation of tobacco alternatives to lessen the harms related to tobacco consumption, government policies have made it harder for consumers to access these alternatives. This trend is obviously against the freedom of choice for consumers, but what does this mean for tobacco users?
Effects of high tobacco taxes on consumers
According to a 2015 study, increasing cigarette excise taxes has the unintended consequence of encouraging consumers to seek higher nicotine content from more harmful products. This study revealed that consumers react to increased cigarette prices by switching to higher nicotine products, which are more dangerous as they expand their addiction level.
Taxes levied to push people away from alcohol and cigarettes affect people who can least afford to pay for them.
Data on adult smokers’ behavioral reactions to tobacco tax showed that it had cross-tax effects on consumers. Higher standard cigarette tax rates reduce adult traditional cigarette use and increase adult e-cigarette use. In comparison, higher e-cigarette tax rates increase regular cigarette use and reduce e-cigarette use.
In recent years, scientific research has recognized e-cigarette products as a safer alternative to tobacco cigarettes and certified their use as a ‘stop smoking aid.’ But, policies that limit access to these safer alternatives infringe on the rights of tobacco consumers, robbing them of freedom of choice.
The push-pull effect of making safer smoking alternatives expensive by increasing excise duty will spur the growth of black-market activities for these products or cause infiltration of other nicotine products, which may be harmful. This would put consumers’ health at risk and lead to their eventual death. Besides, raising taxes on tobacco alternatives will reduce demand for them, affecting government tax income from these tobacco products.
Africa accounts for about 77 million smokers and 146,000 deaths from tobacco-related diseases annually. Despite twenty African countries having over 50 to 75 percent taxation on cigarettes, there is a rise in tobacco use among young adolescents in Africa. An example of a better approach is what we’ve seen in Sweden, where the legalization of e-cigarettes reduced tobacco-related illnesses, making the country record the lowest number of tobacco-related deaths among European countries. In Iceland, the smoking rate dropped drastically after the introduction of vapes. And likewise, in Norway, cigarette smoking fell by half after they made snus widely available.
Making safer alternatives more accessible
Taxes levied to push people away from alcohol and cigarettes affect people who can least afford to pay for them. These taxes conflict with one of the eight Principles of Harm Reduction, which “calls for the non-judgmental, non-coercive provision of services and resources to people who use substances.”
The Kenyan government and other African countries must prioritize tobacco harm reduction by establishing strategies that allow consumers to access safer tobacco alternatives. This option is the best strategy for African countries to help reduce smoking rates and tobacco-related deaths in their respective countries.
Tobacco consumers have to fund their addictions, but it gets more complex and harmful when dealing with high taxes. As such, African states need to ensure that these alternatives are not heavily taxed so that tobacco consumers can have access to safer products.
Olumayowa Okediran is chairman of the Foundation for Consumer Freedom Advancement and the author of Navigate: A Prospection of Nigeria’s future till 2030.
Photo by Trevor Cole via Iwaria.