Tobacco’s Role in Developing Countries

From a global perspective, tobacco use has declined over time.[1]  But the decrease rate of tobacco use among developed and developing countries greatly vary from one another.  One might simply attribute this disparity to increased public health efforts on the harms of tobacco use in developed countries when compared to developing countries.  However, further research of the tobacco companies’ approach at engaging its customers can provide another reason for the difference in tobacco use rates among developed and developing countries.

Historically speaking, a major strategy of tobacco companies includes targeting vulnerable populations that may not be informed on the harms of smoking, tobacco advertisement which displays tobacco use as being socially acceptable, tobacco companies sponsoring community events as well as influencing political systems for their advantage.  And as of present, not much has changed.

Tobacco companies have strengthened their strategies in marketing their products towards individuals living in specific areas that also happen to have the least restrictive tobacco control policies in place.   An example of this would be the 40% increase of tobacco users that is expected in Africa by 2030.  This is also the largest expected increase of tobacco users within the global community.[2]  Several current roles tobacco companies have in Africa include: (1) delaying the implementation of tobacco control policies by influencing politicians to support their agendas, (2) increasing the financial dependency of tobacco farmers on tobacco companies, (3) earning the trust of community members by addressing some of the needs within their community such as providing electricity and hospital supplies, as well as (4) creating advertisements that specifically appeal to women and children.

While some of these roles appear to help individuals living in Africa by providing opportunities of employment and addressing some serious needs within African communities.  The long-term effect of tobacco promotion within these African communities may not be as beneficial.  Tobacco related deaths have been attributed to nearly six million deaths per year, worldwide.[3]   Moreover, when compared to non-tobacco users, tobacco users have higher rates of poor health status, reduced household incomes and increased healthcare expenditures which are may be related to the treatment of their tobacco related conditions. For instance, in some countries, children from poor households work in tobacco farming as a source of family income.  And unfortunately, these children are at a high risk of “green tobacco sickness”, which is caused by the absorption of nicotine through the skin from the handling of wet tobacco leaves.[4]

The short-term contributions of tobacco companies to developing countries appear to benefit both tobacco companies and the communities they target.  Tobacco companies are able to increase their profits by expanding their consumer base and the communities they target are offered opportunities of employment or other types of support.  But the long term health impacts and financial burden of tobacco use and tobacco-related conditions may far exceed the short term outcomes.

[1] Jackson RR. Ebola may be in the headlines, but tobacco is another killer in Africa. The Guardian. October 2014

[2] Ibid

[3] WHO. Tobacco Fact Sheet. May 2014. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs339/en/. Accessed on November 2, 2014

[4] Ibid

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One response to “Tobacco’s Role in Developing Countries

  1. Great comments about the tobacco industry in Africa. It’s a shame that private companies, such as tobacco manufacturers, can pull the strings behind African politicians. I have heard that corruption’s really common in certain African governments. Until those governments rid themselves of corruption, effective policies against tobacco will never materialize. The African politician wins, the tobacco company wins and the people are blissfully ignorant of all these back room deals.

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