Each year smoking and use of tobacco kills nearly 31,000 Kenyans aged 30 and above and about 7 million people globally.
This, according to the World Health Organisation makes tobacco use one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced.
According to the Global Adults Tobacco Survey (GATS) 2014, approximately 3 million (11 per cent of the population) adults in Kenya currently use tobacco products with majority being men (19 per cent).
At the same time, women account for five percent of smokers.
The Global Youth Tobacco Survey of 2013 showed that 10 per cent of Kenyan youth aged 13 to 15 years are regular consumers of tobacco products like shisha and cigars. Most (45 per cent) of the initiation to smoking starts in school followed by the home at 30 per cent.
In a report released ahead of ‘World No Tobacco Day’ on Wednesday, the UN agency warned that the annual death toll of seven million people had jumped from four million at the turn of the century, making tobacco the world’s single biggest cause of preventable death.
And the death toll is expected to keep rising, with WHO bracing for more than one billion deaths this century.
“By 2030, more than 80 per cent of the deaths will occur in developing countries, which have been increasingly targeted by tobacco companies seeking new markets to circumvent tightening regulation in developed nations,” it noted.
One of the reasons given for the increase in deaths is the affordability of tobacco products.
For instance, while a cigarette pack, containing 20 sticks, costs between Sh120 to Sh250, shopkeepers and street vendors across the country sell a single stick for between Sh7 to Sh10, making these tobacco products accessible and affordable, a new survey by the International Institute for Legislative Affairs last year has shown.
The total market value of cigarettes in Kenya is estimated at Sh35 billion, translating to about 7.4 billion sticks.
The situation is likely to worsen after a move by Treasury CS Henry Rotich to introduce a two-tier tax structure, which would see plain cigarettes more accessible to those who smoke. In the 2017-2018 budget statement the CS introduced a two-tier tax structure of Sh2,500 per 1,000 cigarettes with filters and Sh1,800 per 1,000 cigarettes for plain cigarettes.
Tobacco use also brings an economic cost: WHO estimates that it drains more than $1.4 trillion (1.3 trillion euros) from households and governments each year in healthcare expenditures and lost productivity.
In Kenya, the Ministry of Health estimates that 15 per cent of disposable income is spent on tobacco.
“The tobacco epidemic is one that no one can afford to ignore as it threatens us all,” health Principal Secretary Julius Korir said yesterday while marking this year’s World No Tobacco Day.
While launching the first national guidelines for tobacco dependence treatment and cessation 2017, Mr Korir said that there is need to introduce tobacco cessation interventions to help smokers who want to quit smoking.
Currently no cessation guidelines exist in Kenya. These guidelines require countries to implement tobacco control strategies like prohibiting smoking in public places, banning tobacco advertising and using health warnings on tobacco packaging.
The international health agency is now asking countries to put in place stringent measures to rein in tobacco.
“Tobacco is a major barrier to development globally, but action to control it will provide countries with a powerful tool to protect their citizens and futures” noted Dr Douglas Bettcher, Director of WHO’s Department for the Prevention on NCDs.
In addition to the health and economic costs linked to smoking, the WHO report for the first time has warned that everything, from tobacco production to the cigarette butts and other waste produced by smokers, has a negative impact on the environment.
Up to 10 billion of the 15 billion cigarettes sold daily are disposed in the environment.