By Gift Briton and Joyce Ojanji

Although significant effort has been made by countries over the last decade to reduce tobacco smoking, experts warn that the increasing emergence of new tobacco products is posing serious health risks to populations and might reverse the gains that have been made.

Dr. William Maina, Regional Co-ordinator for Tobacco Control, World Health Organization(WHO) Regional Office for Africa, notes that over the last ten years, tobacco use has been on the decline across the continent unfortunately, the tobacco industry is introducing new products in the market which are very enticing, especially to the youth.

Speaking during a regional meeting organized by WHO for midterm review and technical planning on reducing tobacco use in Africa, Dr. Maina, said that flavored electronic nicotine products such as electronic cigarettes, shisha and nicotine pouches are becoming rampant in most African countries due to lack or poor enforcement of laws regulating these products.

With no health benefits, tobacco smoke is one of the leading causes of non-communicable diseases including cancer, diabetes, heart diseases, stroke, and chronic lung diseases, with five out of ten people who continuously smoke tobacco likely to die from tobacco-related diseases. Moreover, tobacco smoking reduces lifespan by up to 10 years.

Furthermore, nicotine, the addictive substance in tobacco, affects the normal functioning of the brain by distorting the chemicals that are responsible for transmitting information that controls how human beings behave. It overpowers the natural dopamine that controls the way we behave and introduces an exciting factor in the brain such that when the levels go down in the brain, it makes smokers restless, unable to concentrate, have shaky hands, and unable to see properly. Therefore, to stabilize, smokers would always want to use the substance over and over again thereby making them dependent on the substance, he added.

According to Dr. Maina, new addictive products are available in the market yet nobody really knows what they really are, adding that tobacco smoke has over 700 chemicals, 70 of which cause cancer. As a result, he says that WHO is supporting countries to increase their domestic capacities for testing and regulating these new products including training of health workers and policymakers and strengthening the laboratory capacity for countries to test these products.

“I urge countries to develop strong laws, build the capacity of technical experts to implement those laws, and most importantly sustain law enforcement. Enforcement of policies will be the success of tobacco control in Africa because when you enforce laws you save lives and people from death. Tobacco use has drastically reduced in the western countries mainly because laws are properly enforced and people follow them to the letter,” he noted.

In Kenya, the use of tobacco has gradually reduced with up to three million people still smoking tobacco. He says that this reduction was possible due to the several guidelines that have been put in place by the government to curb tobacco use.

These guidelines include no smoking in public places, no advertisement of tobacco products, a picture of various diseases caused by tobacco consumption put in all tobacco products, and a body established under the Ministry of Health to control tobacco use.

The government in collaboration with other partners including WHO also started an initiative for assisting farmers in Migori and other counties to stop growing tobacco and instead start growing alternative crops. The initiative has seen over 1500 farmers who were previously growing tobacco now growing nyota bean in Migori, Meru and Busia counties because the land where tobacco is grown is the most fertile land.

Even though the country has made significant efforts to curb tobacco smoking, Dr. Maina notes that poor enforcement of the law is still one of the challenges in the control of tobacco, adding that Kenya banned the use of shisha four years ago but unfortunately it is still being consumed in some clubs.

In an effort to improve her capacity for testing, Kenya has earmarked three laboratories for capacity building to enable them test tobacco including Kenya Quality Control Laboratory, Kenya Medical Research Institute laboratory and the National Public Health Laboratory where the training of experts on how to test nicotine and other products is ongoing. Furthermore, in Africa, Burkina Faso is the only country that has the capacity for testing tobacco products.