CARMEL, California — Lack of clean water, tropical diseases and malnutrition often plague places of poverty. But, in recent years, the impoverished youth in many struggling communities also face a newer, man-made danger: tobacco.
Smoking is the highest cause of preventable death around the world, according to the World Health Organization. It kills nearly six million people per year, and across the decades, will kill half of all smokers.
This number is growing: by 2030, the number of deaths from tobacco-related health concerns could be as high as eight million each year.
Tobacco is now reaching impoverished youth worldwide. Around the world, 12.5 percent of children who had never smoked are in danger of picking up the habit. Every day, some 82,000 to 99,000 kids under the age of 18 will start smoking.
Most will be in impoverished countries, some as young as 10 years old.
There are several reasons for global youth to smoke. First, exposure at home or at school makes the likelihood of a child following suit much higher.
Nearly 40 percent of kids worldwide have parents that smoke around the house. Other factors like poverty and peer pressure compound the issue and can further drive kids to start smoking.
Kids around the world are pushed to smoking by campaigns by tobacco companies. The youth market is a hugely untapped resource for the tobacco industry, and as a result, these companies often target the youth population, specifically in developing nations.
This allows companies to create long-lasting demand by hooking new customers when they are young and vulnerable.
“To sell a product that kills up to half of its users requires extraordinary marketing savvy, and tobacco companies are some of the most manipulative product sellers and promoters in the world,” said the WHO.
But, the free cigarettes and ads on billboards are extremely damaging. Nearly one-third of smoking among impoverished youth can be directly tied to the influence of tobacco companies’ campaigns to grow their user base.
These campaigns are most abundant in developing countries where anti-advertising laws are not so stringent.
“The tactics [companies like Marlboro use]to get teens to smoke in the (United States) [are]being exported to low and middle income countries, where regulations have yet to take root,” said John Stewart, campaign director of Challenge Big Tobacco.
These actions make the youth in those struggling countries even more vulnerable to early smoking.
Smoking and poverty often go hand-in-hand. In fact, poorer men are 2.5 times more likely to smoke than their wealthier counterparts. As a result of factors like advertising and helplessness leading to escape through addiction, 84 percent of the 1.3 billion smokers worldwide live in developing nations.
“Tobacco’s role in exacerbating poverty has been largely ignored by researchers in both fields,” said the WHO.
Some of those at greatest risk are the unemployed youth around the world. In places like Sierra Leone , where 70 percent of the youths are unemployed, substances like smoking and liquor are popular coping mechanisms. Smoking among impoverished youth enables them to pass off their problems and distract themselves from the looming fear of their futures.
“People smoke because there are no jobs,” said Ibrahim Samura, the Assistant Superintendent of the police force.
Smoking drains the resources of both individuals and communities. Money spent on cigarettes could be better spent on food, shelter or healthcare.
A WHO study in Vietnam showed that impoverished smokers put twice as much money into cigarettes than healthcare, two and a half times more than clothes and over three and half times more than on education.
The situation is the same in rural parts of China where smokers spend 11 percent of their yearly income to feed their addition.
However, of a study of 13-year-olds to 15-year-olds in 115 countries, 77.3 percent agreed with smoke-free policies. On top of this, tobacco promotion campaigns were strongly disliked.
This was true even in countries where the majority of people smoke.
Cutting the expansion of the smoking population and the dependence of those already hooked is not an unsolvable problem. Ideas like plain packaging for tobacco products and pictures on cigarette boxes to warn of the dangers have all proved successful and are now being applied in developing nations.
Increased taxes on tobacco products could further discourage their use, and this is especially important in developing nations where regulations are limited.
According to the WHO and the New England Journal of Medicine, increasing prices on tobacco products by 10 percent could reduce their use by as much as 8 percent in low-income nations, and if taxes were tripled, 200 million lives could be saved in the next 90 years.
One of the most successful methods of cutting smoking prevalence is with education. Studies show that boys who attend school are 4 percent less likely to smoke before age 18 and are less exposed to peer pressure. In addition, health education in schools can teach kids about the dangers of smoking at an impressionable age, thus steering the entire school community away from starting the habit.
Increasing attendance in schools in struggling communities worldwide and revamping health classes’ curriculum to focus on the dangers of smoking could save lives.
Smoking is a growing problem as tobacco companies become more adept at campaigning and impoverished populations continue to struggle. Youth around the world are especially susceptible to succumbing to the pressure to smoke, and have a difficult time breaking the habit.
Legislation towards smoking must change to offer support to those already addicted and prevent the prevalence of smoking from growing. Death from smoking-related causes is entirely preventable and it falls on policy makers and public health officials alike to address the issue.
“If I have a job, I will stop smoking,” said Gibrilla, a Sierra Leonean teenager who started smoking at age 11. “But, when I don’t go to work in the morning I just sit down and smoke diamba.”
– Caitlin Thompson