Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Hand Me Those Ronsons, My Good Man

While perusing the bookshelves of our regional volunteer house one especially fun and frolic-filled weekend, Ton Oncle and I found our interest piqued by a particularly intriguing selection: Tobacco Control in Developing Countries. Having witnessed firsthand the ubiquity of cigarettes in Guinea, we decided the massive tome might be worth a read. From our experience, it seemed that no matter how small a village one visited, there would always be a cigarette stand selling at least two or three different brands. We also recalled volunteers who had planned to use their service as an opportunity to quit smoking, only to see their habit grow when confronted by the product's pervasiveness and low cost. Not to mention those of us who had always dreamed of developing a pack-a-day habit, but were previously discouraged by the expense. Anyway, upon perusal, the book seemed to be quite chock-full of meaningful charts and graphs, as well as simply brimming with useful analysis concerning the efficacy of tobacco control measures based on economics and public policy. This wealth of raw "information" was probably the main reason neither of us ever got around to finishing it (although you'd have to ask Ton Oncle for sure). Our limited inspection of the behemoth's contents, however, did leave us with the conclusion that there was very little basis for many of the arguments against tobacco control made by this guy ------------------------------------->

Because smoking rates continue to decline in the U.S. and other highly developed countries, tobacco companies must continually search for alternative means of increasing their revenue. One obvious way to do this is by raising the level of addiction in developing countries. Often, this can be accomplished rather easily, primarily because of a lack of public awareness as to the health hazards associated with tobacco use. Certain populations may also be especially vulnerable to the temptation of that pernicious yet highly desirable compensation offered faithful smokers:
Apparently tobacco companies are still doing their best to keep addiction high here at home also, by secretly raising the levels of nicotine found in their products! Philip Morris claims that these findings represent "random variations in nicotine yields, both upwards and downwards," but we all know the claims made by the tobacco industry have a storied history of being blatantly false. Not to mention that this Harvard study shows on average, there was a 1.6% increase in the amount of nicotine per cigarette every year between 1998 and 2005. Now that I think about it, the fact that I have been steadily smoking more crack each year during the same time period was probably a random variation as well, and not due to spiraling addiction. Phew, what a relief!

Americans' complacency with respect to this and other tobacco opportunism probably arises in part because we have already done much to regulate the industry domestically, as well as raise public awareness. This complacency should not extend to the actions of tobacco corporations in developing countries, however. Because of the fragile economies in such countries, as well as the health problems already caused by malaria, mal-nutrition, and AIDs, the economic and social costs resulting from a continued rise in tobacco use are especially high.
One impediment to implementing controls in developing countries is the fact that many such countries are growing tobacco themselves. This can in turn lead to smuggling operations across the borders of neighboring countries with differing regulations. Confronted with the high prices of European and American cigarettes, I almost smuggled home some Supermatch and Gold Seals myself. Not to mention that the fancy American brands can't beat ERA for pure flavor! The authors of Tobacco Control argue that such smuggling, however, has more to do with the level of corruption in a particular country than the cost of cigarettes. The authors also claim that increasing the cigarette tax has its greatest effect on the number of smokers in developing countries, but again corruption and lack of infrastructure can significantly impede the implementation of such measures.

Despite these challenges to increasing the regulation of tobacco sales worldwide, it is an issue that deserves attention. Simply because smoking-related costs are decreasing domestically does not mean that the same problems should be ignored in other countries. Our knowledge of the societal costs of smoking should be used to help educate those in places where the problem is just beginning. And perhaps the largest deterrent to lighting up could be the fact that it's the favorite activity of this "God-appointed" "president."


Mil Joshi said...

Interesting views and article. Thanks. I just quit.

Mil >

bantara said...

I think it's also very interesting how tobacco companies here insist how they've never deliberately targeted advertising towards children, yet it was my experience in Tougué that whenever the cigarette men came to town, the very first groups they sought out were the children in the collège and lycée.

My sitemite's boyfriend worked for Gold Seal and he told me that the only thing his bosses told him was to go to the market and give away soccer jerseys with the Gold Seal label to the high school kids.

I often saw this same behavior repeated at local football games where a pickup would pull up blasting music and they would start tossing out hats to the adoring masses. Pretty sick behavior and absolutely contrary to the tobacco companies' lines about no longer pandering to children.

ñamaku said...

Yeah, Supermatch "sponsored" a soccer match in Dounet, gave all the kids free t-shirts and hats, and a large portion of the populace served as walking advertisements for the brand thereafter. Pretty sick behavior...

The WHO article to which i posted a link talks about how the smoking prevention programs used by tobacco companies to improve their corporate image often seem designed to have exactly the opposite effect of their purported goal. It specifically addresses how youth smoking prevention programs can actually increase the appeal of cigarettes for adolescents.

These anti-smoking programs attempt to create a public perception that the companies are actively involved in preventing smoking, while in fact they strongly oppose the control measures that have proved most effective: price and tax increases. They then back up this opposition with vigorous lobbying of the government officials responsible for implementing tax increases, and they have the financial clout for such lobbying to prove quite effective.

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