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Cigarette smoking rates, while growing in Africa, are still low, compared to other parts of the world. In this part of our series on smoking in Africa, Zimbabwe Service reporter Sandra Nyaira reports that southern African countries have some of the highest cigarette consumption rates on the continent.

Twenty-seven year old Zimbabwean Dumiso Ndlovu, who drives a combi mini-van back and forth over the Limpopo river border with South Africa, tries to warn friends and fellow drivers about the dangers of smoking. At the Beitbridge depot he also tries in vain not to breathe in second-hand smoke from the cigarettes of his co-workers.

Dumiso knows too well the dangers of smoking. Two years ago he was diagnosed with a tobacco-related illness. He started using cigarettes at the tender age of 10 due to peer pressure from older boys in the high-density Makokoba suburb of Bulawayo, Zimabwe’s second- biggest city.

As Zimbabwe’s economic crisis deepened, Dumiso smoked not only cigarettes but Mbanje, slang for marijuana, until he fell ill and was told he had a tobacco-related form of Tuberculosis.

“I had a chest problem,” Tumiso says. “I had started coughing continuously and when I went to the doctor, that’s when they realized that I had tuberculosis. So I took tablets and after that I finished my course this year in March and I’m actually feeling better now. I will never smoke again. I will never smoke again because I went through hard times.”

Tumiso says he began smoking when he was 15 years old. “The guys I was hanging around with were the ones who were smoking so they encouraged me. We would go out and then start smoking so that’s how I started smoking.”

Twenty-one percent of men in Zimbabwe smoke cigarettes, according to a 2008 World Health Organization survey. But Namibia was the leader in Southern Africa with a startling 36 percent of men smoking - 29 percent on a daily basis. In South Africa the figure was 25 percent, in Mozambique 20 percent, and Zambia 18 percent. About 8 percent of women in South Africa smoke, in Namibia 9 percent, but the rate is in general much lower, 2 percent or less in the other countries.

Though Zimbabwe has no anti-smoking groups as such, there are those who oppose the habit.

Food processing worker Tendai Chishanu, 30, says that ever since his great-grandfather died of a tobacco-related illness, everyone in his family has avoided cigarettes. Like many Zimbabweans, he also shuns smoking on religious grounds, as a member of the Zimbabwe Assembly Of God.

“From my family, no-one used to smoke,” Chishanu says. “But my great grandfather had a problem. He ended up very sick because he was smoking. Normally he would take what we refer to as mbanje or marijuana, that caused most of his damage to the head. And from there nobody in the family had really liked it (smoking).” But Chishanu adds that smokers in his community are young, mostly between the ages of 15 and 27.

Yet tobacco has long figured prominently in the Zimbabwean economy – tobacco exports brought in a big share of the country’s export earnings until the mostly white farmers who raised and cured the leaf saw their farms taken over.

But tobacco farming is starting to recover along with the general economy, although China has replaced western companies as the biggest buyer.

Andy Fereira, a former president of the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association, says Zimbabwe was built on tobacco, which remains important economically.

“Tobacco to Zimbabwe was like what probably gold was to South Africa – if Johannesburg was created through the Witvatersrand gold fields then Harare was definitely created by the growing of tobacco,” Fereira explains. “That is how it has been important to Zimbabwe – we accounted for about 60 percent of the nation’s hard foreign currency earnings at our peak.”

But Fereira says Zimbabwe can still find lucrative foreign markets. “Surprisingly,” he says, “the biggest consumer of cigarettes in the world, which is China, has found accommodation for Zimbabwe’s styles and China is now a very very important market for Zimbabwe tobacco.”

Revenue from tobacco is also important in South Africa, where cigarette taxes are a critical source of state revenues.

Francois Van der Merwe, chairman and chief executive officer of the Tobacco Institute Of Southern Africa, says tobacco is important to African economies and tobacco companies contribute to local schools.

Van der Merwe notes that the manufacturers warn their customers cigarettes can harm their health. But he says a major anti-smoking campaign would damage the economies of countries like Malawi and Mozambique, which have seen consumption triple over the past decade and a half, in part due to the availability of cheap Chinese smokes.

Moreover, Van der Merwe adds, in a number of African countries including South Africa, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Kenya and Uganda, “tobacco plays such a large role employing people, seeing that people make a living for themselves and factories employing people and yet of course the industry is being regulated and taxed and severely restricted.” Van der Merwe explains he realizes that smoking carries health hazards. But he also insists tobacco consumption will never go away completely.

“There are more than a billion people in the world who use tobacco products and they reckon in 30, 40 years from now it would be one and a half billion people,” he says. “So by thinking that you are going to make legislation and banning everything and taxing everything thinking it will go away isn’t going to work.”

Television and print advertising bans, restrictions on smoking in many public places and prominent health warnings on cigarette packaging don't seem to have had a significant impact in South Africa, where one in four men smoke. The American Cancer Society says Africa is on the brink of a smoking epidemic, with cancers due to smoking set to rise across the continent.

Physician Nidia Remane, in Mozambique, confirms the marked increase in smoking among youths 17 and over, which she says compromises their current capacities and future health.

Some governments and activists are launching an offensive against tobacco. British American Tobacco, the biggest seller in Africa, and the tobacco firm Philip Morris International, face a 21 billion U-S dollar lawsuit, filed by the Lagos state government in Nigeria and the environmental group Friends of the Earth, among others. They say tobacco companies are marketing to underage youth, in a country where at least two people die every day from tobacco-related illnesses.

But in Zimbabwe, cigarette companies can still advertise in the largely state-controlled media, and in neighboring Zambia public interest groups accuse big tobacco of lobbying to water down proposed legislation against public smoking.

Multinational tobacco companies are accused of marshaling “fake science” and economic clout to block smoke-free laws across the continent. In Kenya, a center for cigarette manufacturing, the industry has challenged such laws in court. Nevertheless, at least 24 African countries, including South Africa, Kenya and Mauritius ban cigarette or tobacco ads on national radio and television.

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