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Study: Cigarette Smuggling Causing Public Health Problem in Developing World

Anti-tobacco campaigners negotiating a treaty to combat the illicit tobacco trade say cigarette smuggling is big business throughout the African continent and is resulting in serious health problems. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

Studies by a consortium of anti-tobacco groups find the illicit trade in tobacco products represents about 10 percent of global sales, and cost governments between $40-$50 billion every year in lost revenue.

"It puts lower cost tobacco products on to the market and that...correlates with higher consumption," said Kathryn Mulvey, Director of International Policy for Corporate Accountability International. "It correlates with more young people getting addicted to tobacco. So, that is helping to grow their markets for their deadly products. And, they also benefit because often it is a way of getting their brands into markets that they might not yet be established in."

This is borne out by the situation in Nigeria. Akinbode Oluwafemi is a member of the Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals. He says smuggled cigarettes carrying the Japan Tobacco brand name became so popular throughout Nigeria that the company last year set up a factory there. He says the possibility for lucrative sales is enormous in a country with a population of 140 million.

He says cigarette smuggling is widespread throughout Africa and marketing strategies employed by the tobacco companies are very successful. He says cigarette smoking among young people has increased from four percent in 1990 to 13 percent now.

"Africa is the market to conquer, you know...Here we have this huge population of the young you know and impressionable people in Africa...And, these companies are using all these marketing strategies to target our people...particularly, the rate is becoming more alarming among the women population because they are being targeted through fashion shows, consults and all the rest that appeal to women," Oluwafemi said.

Oluwafemi says a survey in 2006 of 26 government hospitals in Lagos found two people a day died from tobacco-related illnesses in each of those facilities. This comes to 10,000 deaths a year in just those 26 hospitals. Lagos alone, he says, has 3,000 hospitals.

He says a national survey of all hospitals throughout the country is being planned. He says he is afraid to think of what those results might show.

The World Health Organization predicts as many as one billion people will die prematurely from tobacco by the end of this century, if current smoking trends are not reversed.