Beauty & The Beast: Why greater tobacco regulation is necessary, but unlikely, in South Africa.

The tobacco industry has made a lasting impression on Africa, birthed by a need for expansion and fostered by a lack of regulation . With South Africa being home to Africa’s top big name tobacco companies, the people of South Africa have been especially hit hard from a health perspective. How has tobacco use remained high over the last 20 years in South Africa when tobacco consumption is dramatically falling everywhere else around the world? Let’s dig a little deeper.

How did Tobacco find its way to Africa?

The US began exporting tobacco to Europe in early 17th century, using slave labor. The cost of cigarettes greatly decreased in 1880, as cigarette manufacturing mechanized and tobacco production increased. By the 1950’s cigarettes accounted for 80% of tobacco use in the US and 50% of American men smoked[1]. As tobacco regulations increased in the US in the form of Surgeon General Warnings and taxes, American consumption of tobacco began to decrease. In the 1990s as American consumption began to decrease Tobacco companies increased expansion and marketing to international countries. Due to South Africa’s need for economic growth and lack of tobacco regulation, tobacco companies began to thrive in South Africa.

The Health & Economic impact of Tobacco on South Africa.

By 1995, South Africa’s largest tobacco company Rothman International, held 87% of the tobacco market share in the country. Rothman International was one of the country’s largest employers offering fair and equal wages to all employees1. In a country split for years by apartheid, many South Africans flocked to Tobacco companies for better wages and a better way of life for them and their family. By 1996 smoking consumption was up to 36% for 18-24 year olds, and by 1999 23% of adolescents reported as being current smokers with a substantial percentage reporting that they had been smoking since before the age of 10[2]. During the early 1990s there was very little regulation regarding the tobacco industry’s advertising and marketing in South Africa. Major tobacco company ads could be found everywhere from a local magazine to the sponsorship of a local elementary school.

The future of Tobacco in South Africa

From the mid 1990s to early 2000’s the South African government has introduced legislation that has aimed to reduce the consumption of tobacco and limit the marketing ability of large tobacco powerhouses. Several bans were put in place that restricted tobacco companies from activities such as sponsoring sports teams, and limited their ability to advertise in commercial areas. While there has been a decrease in tobacco consumption, South Africa still has one of the highest rates of tobacco use within Africa as a result of widespread consumption, lack of health education, and lax tobacco regulations. Additional tobacco controls such as taxes, administered through tax policy, would help create a financial disincentive that would have a long lasting impact on the tobacco industry and people of South Africa.

[1] Bitton, Asaf, Julie Talbot and Lucy Clarke. “Tobacco Control in South Africa.” CASES IN GLOBAL HEALTH DELIVERY (2011

[2] Panday, Dehran Swart and Saadhna. “The Surveillance and Monitoring of Tobacco Control in South Africa.” (2003).

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