Tobacco use and related illness are a growing problem among women and girls in Africa. Picture: Reuters/Umit Bektas
Tobacco use and related illness are a growing problem among women and girls in Africa, according to Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organisation (WHO) Africa director.

An estimated 13 million women in 37 sub-Saharan countries use tobacco in various ways, including snuff, which is common in South Africa.

Moeti, who was speaking at the 17th World Conference on Tobacco or Health, said enforcing existing tobacco control laws was not progressing fast enough to reduce the growing problem of tobacco use among women and girls.

About 22 000 African women die from tobacco annually, while globally 1.5 million women die every year from tobacco use.

Moeti said two out of three deaths from second-hand smoke in Africa occur among women.

“It may sound like a small number, but the concern is that it is growing, and we need to seize the opportunity to stop this trend from growing.”

Another upward trend was tobacco use by teenage girls, with about 13% tobacco usage on the continent.

According to the WHO, there are one billion smokers in the world, and 200 million of them are women.

The WHO said the tobacco industry aggressively targeted women in order to increase its consumer base, and to replace those consumers who quit or who die prematurely from cancer, heart attack, stroke, emphysema or other tobacco-related disease.

Moeti said governments of the region needed to start implementing gender-sensitive policies that include a focus on women’s rights, and in the context of comprehensive tobacco control. Only 11 African countries have implemented effective tobacco taxes.

“We need to recognise the very active role of the tobacco industry, which regards the region as virgin territory to be exploited, if you look at tobacco use rates in the African region compared to other regions,” she said.

Deaths from tobacco in the low- and middle-income countries are projected to double. A survey by the WHO on youth smoking trends showed that more girls than boys smoke, in the false belief that it is a good way to control weight. Gender stereotypes were continuously used by the tobacco industry to attract girls to smoking.

Moeti said interference in policy and threats of litigation by the industry were some of the factors that slowed down regulation against tobacco.

“Not only is the industry engaged in marketing, and particularly targeting women and girls, but they also interfere in the development and adoption of policies, including legislation in countries, in various ways.”

Precious Matsoso, Director-General at the Department of Health, said South Africa’s pattern of tobacco use was different among different social groups.

She said there were different cultural and ethnic norms playing roles in how women used tobacco. She added that older women in the low-income, rural socio-economic group commonly sniffed tobacco instead of smoking it.

“In most instances, when we talk about tobacco use, we limit it to smoking and patterns of use in South Africa, particularly in the low income group, also including the use of non-smoking tobacco, behaviours, patterns and all things.”

Matsoso said a sniffing tobacco product called Ntsu was commonly used by older women in rural areas. In younger women, she said smoking cigarettes was associated with affluence.

“What is of concern is the use of hookah, across all racial groupings. Our target has been more on smoking cigarettes, but we are seeing other forms emerging because of the innovative capacity of the industry,” she said.