Upping the ante against the silent killer
With an Ethiopian population that is more than 70 percent youthful and with fast growing spending power, there is increasing fear that much of Ethiopia Would be prey to the growing influence of tobacco. This comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) highlights a growing phenomenon among a youthful smoking population making this year’s World No Tobacco Day a sombre moment.
Since the world Health authority began to mark the date, there has been an alarming increase in the use of tobacco as well as second-hand smoking that continues to affect millions of people, in particular young people.
To effectively capture the attention of the youth, the tobacco sector, with international players now operating within Ethiopia, have introduced innovative strategies like flavoured tobacco products, sleek designs, and indirect influences via popular television shows, points of sale and others, which, according to the The Mathiwos Wondu - YeEthiopia Cancer Society (NWECS) “encourages them to underestimate the related health risks and start using them”.
Use them they have.
Successive half-hearted initiatives imported from Scandinavian nations and Canada are making tobacco harder to reach among young people. But while the Ethiopian government strives to stop young people from being targets of the tobacco industry’s reach, it continues to face difficulties fully attaining this.
In downtown Adama, while COVID-19 has made it hard for young people to assemble and the sale of alcohol is prohibited in the wee hours of the night, tobacco sales has had a brisk business. Visiting the city just after 8 pm, The Reporter noticed a good number of authorities ensuring bars were closed to ensure restaurants were not selling alcohol and were abiding by the new directive to help deter public gathering and help stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Young people stayed until the last moment to be pushed to leave, taking their time to finish a round of pint to the last drop, smoking heavily and talking loudly as the music of The Weekend played in the background.
“I hate COVID-19 and we are now subjected to endless restrictions by authorities on alcohol”, a 17-year-old, Dawit Tadesse who asked his real name not to be used, told The Reporter as he chain-smoked.
Along with his friends, regular smokers still in high school, Dawit agreed to invite The Reporter to an underground home for a conversation on their lives, including on tobacco.
Not far from a bar where young people usually hangout, now interrupted because of the pandemic, the young people, four in total, marched on to a borrowed space inside an elderly woman’s home willing to sell them drinks and tobacco. “I have smoked all my life”, one of them, a 16 year old said indicating the lifetime span of an age not even old enough to drive a car. “It makes me relax and I started it when I was 14 and I have increased my smoking habit and it has always been accessible, cheap and comes with a range of prices and selection”.
To Ethiopia’s growing tobacco industry, these are wonderful endorsements in their concentrated effort to attract a young population to tobacco, far from the reality in many western nations that have begun to place restrictions and lawsuits and blame on the increasing costs of human life and well-being.
Japan Tobacco International (JTI) purchased a minority share of 40 percent from Ethiopia's National Tobacco Enterprise for half a billion USD and shortly after, increased its share to 70 percent as part of the privatization project Ethiopia started in the last decade. Since then, it has invested in the sector, fought contraband products and brought in international actors to help penetrate the market.
According to Tizita Wondwossen, the Project Officer of Ye Ethiopia Cancer Society, recognized by WHO for tobacco industry monitoring and response efforts, the industry is even using COVID-19 as an opportunity to refurbish its reputation as a corporate responsible entity despite the devastation tobacco has brought to everyday Ethiopians.
“NTE is using the current COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to regain its image and acceptability among the government and the general public. It has produced hand sanitizers and distributed them to economically disadvantaged groups in the community for free. This act is condemned as one form of Corporate Social Responsibility act which is totally banned under proclamation 1112/2019”.
To Dawit and his friends, addiction to cigarettes has become a way of life. To the industry, it is hoped they would become lifetime customers. And as a lasting shot, Dawit reflected on the legacy tobacco has had on his family.
“My own father died from lung cancer, so was his own father. My uncle also passed away from it. I started smoking because I was bored. All my friends were smoking as well. It made me feel cool to smoke and an adult. I liked the idea of being allowed to buy. This to me was the ultimate goal which to me is a path to adulthood”.
However, the fact it has devastated his family directly means little to him.
“I know it's bad for my health and I know it can potentially kill you. But if I do not smoke, I feel sleepy. Always tired and I look ordinary among all my friends who do smoke”.
A 17-year-old chain smoker, to the tobacco industry, a good reminder why it was worth investing more than half a billion USD to a nation whose per capital is still less than 1,000 Birr a year.
The good news here is that Ethiopia has one of the strongest tobacco control legislations in Africa. Food and Medicine Administration Proclamation No. 1112/2019 adopted in 2019 requires 100 percent smoke-free public and work places, a ban on all forms of tobacco advertising and promotions, restrictions on the sale of flavoured tobacco products and pictorial warning labels covering 70 percent of the front and back of all tobacco products.
The law also bans the sale of heated tobacco products, e-cigarettes and shisha, and prohibits tobacco sales to anyone under the age of 21 amongst other tough measures.
With the tobacco industry continuously engaging in actions to ensure continuity of its business even to the detriment of the health of Ethiopia’s young people, tobacco control advocates note that it is imperative for the government to step up efforts to ensure full implementation of the Proclamation. By so doing, say these advocates, the Ethiopian government will be adding impetus to its burning desire to protect its population and especially young people, from the devastating effects of tobacco.