Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - Multinational tobacco firms operating in Africa, under fire from the World Health Organization, this week received major support from an unexpected quarter.
The Organization of African Unity warned the WHO that imposing immediate and stringent anti-smoking laws would adversely affect struggling economies on the continent.
It's generally accepted that smoking kills. On the other hand, the industry employs at least 100 million people directly and indirectly worldwide.
A senior OAU public health official, Dr Laban Masimba, told a WHO-organized meeting of 21 English-speaking African countries in Nairobi this week that although the harmful effects of tobacco were well-documented, "the issue of control needed to be looked at in the context of the overall human-development.
"To curtail the production of tobacco without sustainable and viable choice may create political instability when African economies are either too fragile or stagnant," Masimba told the gathering, also attended by representatives of the World Bank, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and the U.N. Development Program.
"Factors which impact negatively on human health should be treated as a package rather than in a fragmented manner," he said.
The World Bank representative agreed that more studies needed to be carried out to assess the economic effects of curbing tobacco use on the continent.
"The debate about whether smoking kills is over ... the debate is [now] about whether reducing smoking is harmful for the economy," said Joy de Beyer, the Bank's co-ordinator on tobacco control.
She suggested that high taxation on tobacco and a ban on advertising could be an immediate solution to easing the problem.
"The key messages are that death and disease from tobacco use are high and growing, and that policies to discourage tobacco use, such as taxation and bans on advertising, are effective and very cost effective."
She warned that smoking in Africa had increased steadily in the past 10 years and was estimated to be 2.5 per cent higher than the rate of increase in other developing nations.
Tobacco is a key foreign exchange earner for Zimbabwe and Malawi, and an important cash crop in Tanzania, South Africa, Egypt and Kenya.
These nations argue that governments and farmers will need time to adjust to alternative sources of income.
"We will require some time, probably 20 years, to change from tobacco farming and this is not going to be easy. How do you suddenly tell farmers to stop farming without giving them high-paying alternatives," a Malawian ministry of agriculture official asked.
Medical experts and the WHO have called for more stringent regulation of tobacco manufacture and marketing, arguing that the health costs of smoking outweighed the economic benefits.
The World Bank and the WHO contend that one person dies every 10 seconds due to smoking-related diseases worldwide.
They say the incidence of smoking in African countries ranges from a low of about 15 percent of the adult population to a high of 67 percent.
Kenya's Public Health Minister Sam Ongeri said at least 45 percent of smokers of both sexes in most African nations are under 20.
A CDC official, Lawrence Green, said tobacco-related diseases were expected to become the world's biggest killer in the next 20 years, causing more deaths than Aids, malaria, tuberculosis, maternal mortality, automobile crashes, homicides and suicides combined.
The Nairobi meeting made several proposals which, if adopted, could reduce smoking in African countries, including a comprehensive regulation policy and steps to curb the influx of tobacco products from developed nations.
Participants recommended that tobacco farmers be given international support to diversify into alternative crops.
Despite the WHO campaign, British American Tobacco, which has a near monopoly in Africa, still believes the potential exists to expand its market reach. BAT is venturing into new markets in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Djibouti.
But some African nations are taking strict measures to try stamp out the practice.
In Egypt, for instance, the ministry of health recently decreed that only non-smokers would be eligible for promotion in the civil service. Forty per cent of Egyptian men and eight per cent of women smoke.