Out of poverty and into smoking

Out of poverty and into smoking

Time reports that for tobacco companies, Africa is the next great unsold frontier.

Driven in no small part by commodity booms, Africa has seen rapid economic growth in the last decade, and tobacco companies are betting on a pattern of rising incomes leading to higher smoking rates. With few smokers and increasing disposable income, the market logic makes sense:

In Ghana, the male smoking rate (which in most places in the world is higher than the female rate) is only 8%; in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s 14%; in Nigeria, it’s 12%. Compare that with 31% in India, 56% in Malaysia and a whopping 61% in China.

Along with increasing marketing and production within the continent, cigarette companies are also preemptively aiming for good publicity. 

Tobacco companies have jumped into the corporate-social-responsibility game, doing all manner of benevolent work across Africa and Asia. In 2005, Philip Morris paid $5 billion to buy Indonesian cigarette-maker Sampoerna, a company that was already pouring money into scholarships for local students. British American does similar work in Malaysia, and in Nigeria has devoted 1% of its local profits to improving access to drinking water, health care and vaccines. That kind of largesse buys the companies a measure of indebtedness.

“It’s hard to tell a village, ‘You shouldn’t accept these new wells or bicycles because it’s from industry,’ ” says Stella Bialous, an adviser to the World Health Organization. “[But] when it comes time to pass regulatory things the company doesn’t think reasonable, they can call in their chips. They have all these little groups dependent on their money.”

Despite these efforts, in 2007, Nigeria filed a $45 billion lawsuit against three tobacco companies for marketing to children, and a number of countries have launched anti-smoking campaigns.

Though the Sudanese children pictured above seem to have gotten the message that cigarettes are dangerous (and have bloody fangs), it will be hard to prevent smoking from taking off in the conditions of poor regulation, low healthcare, and low life expectency common to many African countries. 

Isam Al-Haj/AFP/Getty Images