Although tobacco use is not as prevalent in Africa as it is in other regions, that will change unless immediate action is taken, the United Nations health agency warned today as it announced a new tobacco control effort for the continent.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says the focus will be on strengthening the ability of African nations to implement the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the global treaty that guides national efforts to counter the tobacco epidemic, as well as on setting up a regional centre to assist countries as they work to counter the spread of tobacco use.
Dr. Ala Alwan, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health, points out that tobacco use in Africa is not just a health problem but also a development problem.
“Tobacco breeds poverty, killing people in their most productive years. It consumes family and healthcare budgets. Also, money spent on tobacco products is money not spent on such essentials as education, food and medicine,” states Dr. Alwan.
Tobacco use, which kills more than 5 million people per year, is the most preventable cause of illness and death, he adds. “Unchecked, it will kill more than 8 million people per year by 2030, with more than 80 per cent of those deaths occurring in developing countries.
“Although tobacco use is less prevalent in Africa than in other regions of the world, that will change unless we act.”
WHO notes that tobacco use is a risk factor for the major non-communicable diseases – heart attacks, strokes, cancers, diabetes and asthma and other chronic diseases – which together account for 60 per cent of all deaths.
In the 46 countries of WHO’s Africa region, non-communicable diseases are expected to account for 46 per cent of deaths by 2030, up from 25 per cent in 2004.
Dr. Douglas Bettcher, Director of WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative, cited a pressing need to devise effective strategies against tobacco use. “Working with governments and partner organizations, we can help in preventing tobacco from gaining the upper hand.”
The new effort will be financed partly by a $10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest grant WHO has received for tobacco control in Africa.