AN alarming 40% of adolescent South Africans have admitted to being addicted to – or at least to using – tobacco products, with more than half of those who spoke saying they thought it made them more popular and allowed them the comfort of having more friends.
In a study conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the group of 13 to 15 year-olds found that 24% of boys and 18.4% of girls who smoked seemed more attractive to their peers.
In the study, released at the end of last year, WHO said: “One in six had an object with a cigarette brand logo on it, 27% said they usually smoked at home, while 52.2% bought cigarettes in a store.”
They were also told, by the primary to secondary learners, that 57% of them bought their own cigarettes and were not declined purchase because of their age.
This as statistics show that more than 8 million people died from tobacco use every year, with most tobacco-related deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries.
“These countries are often targets of intensive tobacco industry interference and marketing,” was the finding of the Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS), which is a self-administered, school-based survey.
It targets pupils in grades associated with 13 to 15 years of age and is designed to enhance the capacity of countries to monitor tobacco use among youth and to guide the implementation and evaluation of tobacco prevention and control programmes.
The results were alarming, they said, as in addition, the risk of chronic diseases started early in childhood “...and such behaviour continues into adulthood.”
Tobacco has been flagged as a highly addictive substance by many countries and organisations across the world.
“Smoking often starts in adolescence, before the development of risk perception. By the time the risk to health is recognised, addicted individuals find it difficult to stop tobacco use,” the WHO said.
Smoking, or the prevalence of tobacco use, includes smoking and the use of oral tobacco and snuff, and when the study was conducted in 2023, the young South Africans admitted to having engaged in tobacco use on more than one occasion in the 30 days before they participated in the survey.
They also spoke of general exposure, with 32% saying they lived in homes where others smoked in their presence; 41% were around others who smoked in places outside their homes, and 54% said they thought smoking should be banned from public places.
“Some said they thought smoke from others was harmful to them, despite that they said they had one or more parents who smoked. Just less than 10% said most or all of their friends smoked,” according to the WHO.
In 2019, the South African National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey found that 17.6% of 13 to 20 year-olds reported that they had been smoking cigarettes for at least a month prior to being questioned, in a country where children under the age of 18 are prohibited from entering designated smoking areas and buying cigarettes.
“Amendments to smoking laws since then have made this even stricter. Smokers are now forbidden from lighting up on premises used for commercial childcare activities,” the government said.
Last year, 49% of the 13 to 15 year-olds said they had been taught about the dangers of smoking in class, 37.9% said it had been a topic of discussion in class. “They also spoke of the reasons why people their age smoked, among the major reasons being peer pressure,” the study found.
The department said programmes existed in school which were meant to discourage young people from ever smoking and/or using tobacco, and the effects thereof.
“Almost 80% said they had seen anti-smoking media messages within 30 days, 67.8% had seen pro-cigarette ads on billboards, and 66.8% had seen pro-cigarette ads in newspapers or magazines in the 30 leading to participating in the survey.
But, worrying was that 15.5% said they had been offered free cigarettes by a tobacco company representative,” the study found.
The GYTS also found that 77% said they did want to stop smoking, 79.6% said they had tried but failed, while 70% admitted to having received help to stop smoking, and all this comes as the country experiences a rise in alternative smoking methods, popular among the young people being the hookah pipe, also known as bubbly bubbly.
“Cancer, lung damage, heart disease, TB, herpes, and early death are some of the dangers of hubbly bubbly,” the Cancer Association of South Africa said. “A hookah smoker takes about 100 puffs in a single 45-minute session, while a cigarette smoker takes about 10 puffs per cigarette.”
They said it was highly addictive: “It is 36 times more addictive than that of cigarettes. There is nothing cool about hubbly bubbly...it is the devil’s product.
It was the tar in tobacco smoke that caused cancer they said. “The smoke produced in a typical hookah smoking session can contain about 36 times more tar and about eight times more carbon monoxide than from a single cigarette.”
As such, local health experts have called hubbly bubbly South Africa’s newest “silent killer” as parents report rushing their children to the intensive care unit and others saying their children had died from the effects of engaging in the habit.