Lowering tobacco use has been one of the great successes of public health in the past 50 years, and continues to be a focus of research and intervention. This was achieved through policy and health communication. This journey has shown us that it is possible to change the culture and narrative around behavior, despite steady corporate influence. While tobacco is still a significant public health hurdle in the U.S., there is confidence in the direction we’re headed given what we’ve accomplished.
Unfortunately, tobacco companies are infiltrating other countries with less developed infrastructure for tackling this issue. Currently, low and middle income countries represent 80% of the world’s smokers, as well as smoking-related deaths. Africa in particular is falling victim to extremely powerful tobacco marketing campaigns – smoking prevalence in Lesotho rose from 15% to 52% just between 2004 and 2015, and the industry even manipulated public health policy in Nigeria. Big tobacco is no stranger to targeting advertising strategies to vulnerable groups.
In order to reverse this, we need to support strategies that African countries have already begun to administer. Ghana and Madagascar have implemented tobacco advertising bans; several nations have introduced graphic labels on cigarette packs; South Africa has increased tax on tobacco products; and Kenya has implemented a system for tracking and tracing illicit tobacco product sales.
Already having the knowledge of the danger of tobacco will hopefully help other countries prevent the industry’s hold from strengthening. We must support their efforts before it’s too late.