Senegal on the frontline of the battle with Big Tobacco

DAKAR, 19 November 2013 (IRIN) – Djité Sekou, 32, smokes as he passes his nights guarding one of the many high-rise apartment buildings in Dakar, Senegal. It has been eight years since his first cigarette – a Monte Carlo from Morocco – and when money is available he goes through 20 to 30 per day. It is an addiction that can cost him up to a quarter of his monthly income.

Like most smokers in Senegal, he rarely buys a full packet, preferring to purchase cigarettes individually – a sales strategy tobacco companies employ to ensure that even those with limited means are able to afford their daily nicotine.

“If my pocket is heavy, I buy the full packet,” explained Sekou. “If my pocket is empty, I buy four Excellence [cigarettes] at 100 [CFA] francs [US$0.20].”

Sekou is one of a growing number of smokers across Africa. While reliable, up-to-date figures are unavailable, the 2007 Global Youth Tobacco Survey estimated that up to 20 percent of Senegalese boys and 10 percent of girls aged 13 to 15 used tobacco products – a number believed to be much higher today.

Oumar Ndao, Senegal’s focal point for tobacco control at the Ministry of Health, says, “This is due to extremely weak legislation that, apart from prohibiting television advertising, demands no restrictions.”

Tih Ntiabang, Africa coordinator of the civil society Framework Convention Alliance, based in Yaounde, Cameroon, says advertising focuses “on two groups of people – the youth and women. For the youth, they portray smoking as cool. For women, if you smoke you are emancipated.”

In Senegal, there are almost no restrictions on smoking in public places, and warning labels on packets are small.

The exception is the holy city of Touba, where smoking has been banned for religious reasons since 1980 (15 years before the US State of California enacted its ban on smoking in enclosed workplaces).

Yet with Senegal’s parliament due to vote on new anti-smoking legislation, the rest of the country may soon follow suit.

If passed, the law would ban all tobacco advertising, restrict smoking in public places, and demand health warnings that cover 30 percent of all cigarette packaging.

Ndao believes that, even if the law could be strengthened further, this would be a “major step forward” and “endow Senegal with one of the strongest [such] laws in the region.”

Weak tobacco control continent-wide

With the largest proportion of young non-smokers and the weakest tobacco controls of any other continent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), Africa is a lucrative market for cigarette marketers.

Just five African countries have comprehensively banned smoking in public places, according to WHO, while nine – Chad, Eritrea, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Niger and Togo – ban all tobacco advertising. Only four African countries – Madagascar, Mauritius, Niger and the Seychelles – meet WHO recommendations for health warnings on packaging.

“In a number of places, there is no legislation at all,” said Ntiabang. “What is really driving this is the tobacco industry strategy to recruit new smokers.”

Yet even where laws do exist, enforcement is a major problem. Senegal’s Ministry of Health has banned smoking in all health centres, but according to the government’s own report to WHO, this has had “no practical impact in reality.”

WHO estimates that, globally, tobacco kills six million people per year, a figure that, without action, could rise to eight million by 2030, with 80 percent of deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries.[Read full article]