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AfricaMoney | November 7, 2016

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Mauritius, South Africa show ‘very high’ prevalence of tobacco usage

Africa is likely to face a severe health threat in the form of a smoking epidemic from the fast-growing increase in tobacco use, according to a report by the American Cancer Society. (Image: Shutterstock)

With the recent rise in duty on tobacco products by 5% under Budget 2014, it appears that Mauritius is struggling to reverse a worrying trend. A report by the American Cancer Society shows that Africa is likely to face a severe health threat in the form of a smoking epidemic, from the fast-growing increase in tobacco use.

Both Mauritius and South Africa are highlighted in the report as ‘the most developed countries in the region’ that show high penetration rates of smoking, resembling those of developed economies. According to a World Bank report published in 2010, the smoking prevalence among Mauritian men was 30.52% in 2009, compared to a lowly 6% for the African region.

However, both the island economy and its prosperous southern neighbor may escape the worst of the epidemic as policy measures, including tax disincentives, are already in place to discourage excessive use of tobacco.

But, for the rest of Africa, the report, titled ‘Tobacco Use in Africa: Tobacco control through Prevention’, paints a bleak picture indeed.

Commenting on the scope for growth of the tobacco industry in Africa, the report notes that, while only 2% of cigarettes smoked are contributed by the continent, as many as 6% of total smokers in the world reside in Africa. This shows that cigarette usage is currently low, possibly due to low incomes, but as economies and incomes grow, this presents ‘incredible scope’ for the tobacco industry to grow in Africa.

Overall, a high population base and low current penetration rates of tobacco are the ideal Molotov cocktail for a smoking epidemic to erupt soon in the continent.

Africa now accounts for 12% of the global population which will climb to 30% by 2100. The study concludes that because of this, the continent will have the second-highest number of smokers of any region by 2060.

In this context, the report points out that tax policies are critically important in environments where incomes are growing rapidly, because as incomes grow, everything becomes cheaper and more affordable, including cigarettes.

According to Evan Blecher, a Cape Town, South Africa based senior economist for the American Cancer Society, decline in smoking in countries such as South Africa and Mauritius can be put down to very strict tobacco control policies like advertising bans, smoke free areas, and very aggressive tax policies.

Thus, there exists a need for proactive tax policies to ensure that tobacco products are not becoming more affordable, the report highlights. The recent move of the Mauritius government to increase duty on cigarettes under Budget 2014 can be considered a crucial policy measure to discourage tobacco consumption in the island nation.

Finally, Blecher adds that, in the absence of tax systems as developed as those of South Africa and Mauritius, tax policy has not been pursued as aggressively as required by African governments with respect to tobacco. Besides, the technical capacity to implement, enforce and administer tax policies is sorely lacking.

All in all, the report estimates that the region could avoid as many as 139 million premature deaths by 2100 if African countries put appropriate policy interventions in place.

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