, NAIROBI, Kenya, Mar 5 – As the world marks five years since the first framework on tobacco control came into place, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has raised concerns over an increased number of young girls smoking cigarettes in Kenya.
In an exclusive interview with Capital News, WHO Programme Officer in charge of Tobacco control Dr Joyce Nato said the latest statistics indicated that the ratio of young boys and girls smoking cigarettes is one-to-one, an increase from a 2001 report which indicated that in every 10 school going boys who smoked, only one girl smoked.
“This is a big worry because it means that our girls are picking up smoking very fast and tobacco use in girls is even more dangerous,” Dr Nato said.
“It affects all the organs of the body and the reproductive system and you find women having abortions (miscarriages), underweight babies or children who are affected mentally,” she explained.
Capital News spoke to a young lady who said she had been a smoker since she was in second year at the university.
“I find it cool to smoke. I grew up in a single parent family. My mum used to smoke and I admired it,” Cassandra said.
“I am not ashamed to say that I am a smoker unlike most others,” she added.
Cassandra revealed that she smokes when she is stressed, idle, annoyed or drinking alcohol.
The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is the world’s first global public health treaty to control tobacco use to which Kenya is among the 168 countries that are signatory.
The WHO treaty requires governments to protect their population from exposure to tobacco or tobacco smoke, regulate packaging and labeling of tobacco products and curb advertising and sponsorship.
And there is still an outcry from WHO and anti-tobacco lobby groups over the tobacco industry’s manipulation and interference with anti-tobacco campaigns.
‘This is quite unfortunate because the tobacco industry was involved during the negotiations on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control but because of its muscles in terms of funds, it interferes quite a lot with the implementation,” Dr Nato stated.
“We are talking even about countries like the United States where the industry also interferes.”
But according to Cassandra, the anti-tobacco campaigns have not been effective at all. She described them as scare tactics and termed the pictorials as exaggerated.
“The only thing that disturbs me is that I care about the environment and it worries me to know that I am contributing to the global emissions. That is one thing that may make me quit smoking,” she said.
She said she has reduced her smoking significantly taking about six cigarettes a day compared to the one and a half packets she did previously.
“But when I stay for long without smoking, my hands shake a lot.”
She believes in a famed quote that “black people don’t die of cancer; it’s the white people that do”.
She also has fears that if she stopped smoking she would gain weight, a factor that Dr Nato said was among the reasons many young girls smoked cigarettes.
“Yes you lose weight when you smoke but the long term effects are severe,” Dr Nato said.
She said smokers in the African region were more at risk of addiction because the cigarettes here have very high contents of nicotine as opposed to those in the Western countries.
It is estimated that annually over five million people die worldwide as a result of tobacco use.
In 2007, Kenya came up with a Tobacco Control Act which has been seen as a big step towards control of tobacco use especially in public places and was initially received with resistance.
Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance (KTCA) Communication Officer Lucy Anaya however told Capital News that there was still need for more pressure to fully control tobacco use.
“We don’t have enough enforcement officers and we need them to monitor the implementation of this Act and at some point the government has been cooperative although a section of the government has been reluctant on the anti-tobacco campaigns,” Ms Anaya said.
She said activists together with the Ministry of Public Health were now lobbying to have pictorial health warnings put on cigarette packs.
“It is worrying that the government gets revenue from tobacco manufacturing companies and spends three times of that to treat tobacco related ailments. We need to reduce tobacco intake in this country,” she said.
She said it is estimated that the government spends about Sh18billion annually to treat tobacco related ailments while the industry brings in about Sh4billion.
“Tobacco is never grown in Europe why is it grown here? It is because Europe understands the side effects of tobacco growing and exposure. Even wild animals cannot eat tobacco leaves because they are very poisonous,” Ms Anaya said.
“It is important to note that tobacco has about 4000 chemicals of which 40 can cause various types of cancers.”
Tobacco in Kenya is grown in parts of Western, Nyanza and Eastern provinces.
“You find that a farmer is paid about Sh100 per kilogramme of the finest tobacco while the industry makes about Sh5,000 from that kilogramme,” she said.