Recently, there have been significant advances in the battle against tobacco use in Africa, with achievements including ratification of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) and the passing of tobacco control legislation in several countries. Many African countries have achieved measured success, while Uganda, South Africa and Mauritius have accomplished significantly more in their efforts to curb tobacco use. Nevertheless, few African countries meet the standards of the individual WHO FCTC articles with regard to comprehensive implementation. Africa has lower rates of tobacco taxation, weaker smoke-free policies and fewer restrictions on tobacco advertising compared with other world regions. These shortcomings have enabled the tobacco industry to expand its markets on the continent by capitalising on economic growth, changing social norms and population demographics. Consequently, tobacco use is increasing in Africa, with smoking prevalence having risen 57% between 1990 and 2009 compared with western Europe, where it decreased substantially during the same period. Rapid smoking uptake in Africa has led to tobacco-related conditions emerging as increasingly important public health problems. African nations are unlikely to meet the 2025 goal of a 30% relative reduction in tobacco use, as advocated by the World Health Assembly in 2013 and identified as the ‘most urgent and immediate priority’ intervention to reduce non-communicable diseases (NCDs). While there has been some progress, the current commitment of most African countries to the WHO FCTC has not translated into effective delivery of tobacco control policies and programmes. Strong tobacco control policies, which are among the most effective population-based strategies for NCD prevention, are needed. These include introducing higher tobacco excise taxes, stronger smoke-free policies, graphic warnings on cigarette packages, bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and anti-smoking mass media campaigns. Furthermore, tobacco industry interference needs to be actively addressed by monitoring its activities and exposing misconducts, thereby changing attitudes to the industry. Technical support, capacity building and adequate financing are needed in Africa to enable countries to competently manage legal challenges to tobacco control and deal with the subversive tactics of the industry. Civil society and the media – major players in holding governments accountable for responsible stewardship – need to educate and pressurise African politicians and governments to implement and enforce effective tobacco control policies. Otherwise, if unchecked, the widespread uptake of tobacco use will be a threat not only to health but also to sustainable human development in Africa.
S Afr Med J 2018;108(7):551-556