New Internationalist

Tobacco Toll

September 1980

N.I. Issue No. 50: April 1977

‘There is,’ according to the Chairman of British American Tobacco (BAT), ‘no statistical association between smoking and health in developing countries.’ But it was 30 years before the West recognized the link between smoking and lung cancer. And now evidence reported in the British Medical Journal in April this year shows that black and brown lungs are no tougher than white ones. In the six African countries where figures on cigarette consumption are available, the report found sharp increases in smoking between 1967 and 1976. In Libya and Ethiopia consumption actually doubled (see graph).

But the saddest statistic comes from the United Nations Committee on Trade and Development, which reveals that ‘the world’s largest airlift of cigarettes is operated from Britain. About 210 metric tons are carried every month from London to the Sudan and Somalia by BAT, the contract is reputedly worth $6.54 million per year, 10 per cent of all UK tobacco exports. The new consumers are amongst people already weakened by drought, in two countries whose economies are stretched by massive influxes of refugees. Despite domestic attempts to reduce smoking, it is the three large British based companies - BAT, Imperial Tobacco, and Rothmans - which are reaping the biggest profits in the Third World. They diversified into developing countries when consumption in the West dropped, and their exports now total $500 million a year. The plot goes deeper. The tar and nicotine content of cigarettes sold in the West is only half that of the same brands exported to Africa. Bo Wickstrom in his report to the University of Gothenberg in 1979 - ‘Cigarette marketing in the Third World’ - found that a State Express 555 cigarette bought in Nairobi contained 31 mg of tar and 2 mg of nicotine, compared with 18 mg of tar and 0.9 of nicotine in London. Double the danger - with no health warning on the packet.

High tar and increasing consumption of cigarettes are now taking their toll, as the table below makes clear. The incidence of lung cancer among the blacks in South Africa’s Natal province is among the highest in the world, second only to the USA at 24 cases in every 100,000. And only in Turkmenistan, Russia are figures for cancer of the throat worse than those amongst blacks in Durban.

The statistics show a sixfold increase in cases for men and fivefold for women over the last 11 years. Cancer is not the only smoking-related illness on the increase. Heart disease and chronic bronchitis are also becoming big killers in the developing world. So much so that earlier this year the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Director General labelled smoking as ‘the largest single preventable cause of ill health in the world.’ And warns a recent WHO report ,smoking diseases will appear in the developing countries before communicable diseases and malnutrition have been controlled.’

This column was published in the September 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 091

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