— As the number of smokers continues to rise in Africa, the World Health Organization warns that smoking - and smoking-related diseases - could become a major epidemic in the region. The region’s first-ever national campaign on the dangers of tobacco use was launched Tuesday.
Senegal’s Ministry of Health and Social Action, along with the World Lung Foundation, has officially launched an eight-week, mass-media campaign that will attempt to educate the public on the dangers of smoking.
The campaign, which is known as “Sponge,” will graphically depict the dangers of tobacco use on TV, radio, and billboards, as well as send information via text message to the citizens of Senegal.
Rebecca Perl is the associate director of the World Lung Foundation. She said that the campaign will not only empower people to quit or avoid smoking, but will also encourage the government to pass policies that protect citizens from the dangers of tobacco.
“These mass media campaigns are really critical because they basically educate the public as to the dangers of smoking. I think people say they know abstractly, that yeah, cigarettes are bad for you, smoking is bad for you, but they don’t know how bad. They don’t know really what it will do and how many people [it will affect], and what the consequences are and how the consequences look, which is extremely horrifying," she said.
According to the latest figures by the American Cancer Society, tobacco consumption rose 57 percent in Africa between 1997 and 2009.
In Senegal, it is estimated that 11 percent of citizens currently use tobacco products, and that almost 48 percent of Senegalese youth are exposed to secondhand smoke within their homes.
In neighboring countries, such as Ivory Coast, consumption is nearly 20 percent.
While these numbers aren’t as high as they are in some other countries, Perl said that as the tobacco industry continues to increase its advertising in Africa and takes advantage of the lack of cigarette regulation in the region, these numbers are set to “skyrocket.”
“Unfortunately, the successes that the West has had on tobacco control, has come, at some extent, to the detriment of the southern part of the world because they move markets. So in Africa, the tobacco companies see there’s more opportunity for growth and they come in to advertise their products and get people addicted to cigarettes, which is an extremely bad thing, because the last thing any country needs is an epidemic of cancer and heart disease and lung disease - and that’s what you get with tobacco," she said.
Rachel Kitonyo is the program director for the Africa Tobacco Control Consortium Project. She said that a graphic anti-smoking campaign is key to preventing what she calls the "imminent" tobacco epidemic.
“We say a picture speaks a thousand words. Well, we still have high levels of illiteracy in Africa. And so when you look at the kind of warnings we are putting on cigarette packets in Africa - tiny letters on the side of the packet - who’s watching that? So when you have graphic pictures, one look at that is enough to get someone to think," she said.
Advocacy groups say that in addition to the awareness campaign, they are also hoping to pass anti-smoking laws in all public places within Senegal and raise taxes on cigarettes.
In Senegal, a pack of cigarettes currently costs just over $1.
Dr. Abdoul Aziz Kasse is the president of Senegal’s League Against Tobacco. He said that raising the price of cigarettes in any country is one of the most effective ways of controlling smoking.
He says 50 years of research has shown that we can significantly reduce tobacco consumption among young people and the poor by raising the taxes. He says not only will this discourage smoking, but it will raise money for the government to invest in health care programs.
Anti-tobacco legislation is currently under review in Senegal’s National Assembly. Representatives say they are working to pass it quickly, but so far, no action has been taken.