Tobacco war lights up
It’s lunchtime. A cloud of smoke swirls through a group of teenage boys clad in their secondary school uniforms as they share a cigarette in Maseru, Lesotho’s capital. "Pass that over," says one.
Across the street, another boy stands with a pack of cigarettes in one hand and a box of marches in the other. "Thirty cents a cigarette," he calls out, as teenagers and adults compete to buy. It takes him roughly 20 minutes to dispose of the 30-cigarette pack.
The cigarette seller makes enough to afford his family a descent meal. But neither do he and his customers know the dangers of the wares he is selling, and no one appears to mind.
But this is hardly surprising in this tiny landlocked country where cigarette packets rarely carry health warnings. Young people, especially from small developing countries, are susceptible to the lure of tobacco.
"I feel rejuvenated every time I puff at a cigarette," says 14-year-old Tsepo. Having started smoking a year ago, he is now a five cigarette a day person when the pocket permits.
"Cigarettes make me feel like a real grown up," explains the teenager. "Smoking makes me sociable. I participate as fully as possible in any conversation."
Tsepo claims to have tried to quit smoking five months ago but failed because the habit was already deep-rooted. He has heard once on the radio that smoking can cause tuberculosis and cancer, but that remains at the back of his mind as he has resigned himself to fate.
Lesotho has been fighting a 22-year-old battle against tobacco addiction in schools, but teenager smokers seem to be on the increase. A recent report by Panos reveals that 55 per cent of the smokers in the tiny country are between 12 and 17 years of age.
As part of the curricula in both primary and secondary schools, the Lesotho government launched in 1979 the Health and Physical Education (HPE) plan, which teaches students about the effects of drugs, including tobacco.
By 1992, the government discovered that the plan was failing as no one, including the Ministry of Education, had taken it seriously. It had no teaching aids and the education ministry failed to come up with a syllabus.
Noticing its failures, the government ordered an evaluation and changed the tactics to target primary school students up to Standard Three.
Large numbers of school children in Lesotho tend to drop out of school before the secondary level because of the high cost of education.
Many anti-tobacco activists also argue that people in the 12-17 age bracket have already been corrupted by the tobacco industry, which has enjoyed a long honeymoon period in developing countries without any major opposition.
"The world over, tobacco companies have met up with stiff resistance in the developed world such that they had turned to developing countries targeting the 12 to 17 age group," says Rob Cunningham in his book Smoke and Mirrors: The Canadian Tobacco Wars. "Those who have grown to adulthood having resisted the urge hardly do."
The industry vigorously denies targeting young people and health groups summarily dismisses the industry’s denial.
In Lesotho, youngsters are being lured to smoking because of the absence of health warnings on cigarette packets. Unlike Lesotho, the Canadian government approved in 1993 health warning sizes that are so large they take up nearly half of the space on the front and back of packages.
Being landlocked and without a vibrant manufacturing industry, Lesotho imports 18 brands of cigarettes from South Africa. These cigarettes hardly come with health warnings. Unlike its dependent, South Africa has a strong anti-smoking lobby that was influenced by the Canadian experience.
In its battle again teenage addiction, Lesotho says it will table its first-ever tobacco policy for public scrutiny. It has not given a time frame for this, but says the policy will help to intensify education on the dangers of smoking.
To be tabled by the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, the policy will seek to make it compulsory for South African manufacturers to put a health warning on each and every packet imported into the country. Proposals also include restricting the sale of tobacco to minors, banning smoking in public offices, and reducing the nicotine content.
The government notes that even with such a policy, the battle would be far from being won.
"But even with such a policy," says expatriate Zimbabwean teacher Themba Musoni, "one can always say he has been sent by an adult."
However, being overwhelmed by a giant neighbour has its own advantages. Social commentators point to the anti-smoking campaigns being carried in the South African broadcasting media.
Most South African broadcasting stations can be reached in Lesotho. Among these broadcasts is a radio youth programme on the South African Broadcasting Corporation in Sesotho, Lesotho’s indigenous language. The programme has a large following in the tiny country. Every five minutes, the programme is punctuated by adverts warning youth about the dangers of smoking.
Ironically, on Radio Lesotho itself, every English language news bulletin is preceded by a classy cigarette advertisement carrying no health warnings.
Says Titus Silas of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control: "The public health movement can only be successful when young people no longer want to smoke."
He attributes about 30 million deaths of adults every year worldwide to tobacco, adding that 40 percent of the number is from developing countries such as Lesotho.
Observers say there needs to be domestic research on the health effects of tobacco. This was shown when Tefo Mabote, former Minister of Health and Social Welfare, in a speech on No Smoking Day cited statistics from the World Health Organisation that excluded those from Lesotho.