During my recent visit to Ghana, I felt overwhelmed by the amount of cigarette advertising and promotions in the country. I saw posters and billboards virtually everywhere –on the TVs, buses, tro-tros, trains and taxis, in towns and cities and at every public place. Posters can be seen even in schools and university campuses. I also attended few community events- teen sports, fashion shows and others some of which were organized by Unit Committee leaders and sponsored (behind the scene) by the tobacco company/agents. At these gatherings, I witnessed some of the teens, as young as 14 years old smoking cigarettes and passing it on from teen to teen. I asked some of the organizers and was told that most of these kids do smoke and that those addicted contribute money together to buy a packet of cigarette and share. I realized then, that Ghana too, has a problem with teenage smoking. It may seem nostalgic but Ghanaians who grew up in the 50s would be surprised to see the proliferation of cigarette advertising and promotion in Ghana today and wonder the impact on the Ghanaian youth and teenagers. The youth of those years had little to worry about cigarette advertising and promotions because there were few if any at all, other than the photo of the bearded John Players wrapped around cigarette tin cans which some of us were interested in collecting. We collected these tin cans to make ‘can to can telephones’ to play ‘hello, hello games’ on the streets learning how sound travels. The can to can phone games were big thing to teens in my town as cellular phones are today. Those were the years that tobacco related diseases and ailments had no significant statistical meaning to the Public Health Officials. Fighting malaria and tuberculosis were the premier concern of the government. Unfortunately, things are not what they used to be any more. Joe Camel, the Marlboro man and Rothmans have replaced John Players in cigarette advertising and promotions aimed particularly at the youth and teenagers all over the world. The more I looked around, the more I became convinced that tobacco and cigarette advertisers and promoters, particularly the British American Tobacco (BAT) and Rothmans have become the premier sponsors of entertainments, TV shows and other public events and in some respect, they are also the major contributors to the political parties and the academic institutions in Ghana. Tobacco and cigarette advertising and promotions in general are not the concern of this writer in as much as they create jobs and generate revenue for the government and the private sector, and their activities are directed at the well-informed consumers. My main concern is that most of the advertising and promotions target the youth and teenagers who are unsophisticated, vulnerable and susceptible to advertising and promotions. This is what leads me to question whether the government of Ghana and the Public Health Institutions are aware of this phenomenon and why I believe cigarette advertising and promotions targeting teenagers should be banned. Experts say that among the dangerous ailments caused by tobacco and cigarette smoking is emphysema, asthma, lung cancer, not to mention heart disease and drug addiction, and sometimes brain damage affecting teenagers everywhere. These are serious but preventable ailments that should not be allowed to develop to become public health problems in addition to the HIV/AID problems, which continue to pose severe public health and budgetary challenges to the government and private health providers in Ghana. It would be rather naïve and disingenuous for me to assume that the government is oblivious of the danger cigarette advertising and promotion pose to teenagers in Ghana. I am aware of the effort under way to ban smoking in public places to save non-smokers from contracting smoke related diseases. I am also aware of the programs that have been developed in schools to educate students about the harmful effects of cigarette smoking. These are all well and good but they are not enough considering the easy access to cigarettes and the aggressive nature of corporate advertising and promotions directed at teenagers. Studies have shown that from the standpoint of public health, the safest and the most economical way of dealing with this kind of advertising is to ban the practice outright. So why hasn’t the government of Ghana banned the tobacco company from targeting the youth in their advertising and promotions? It has been reported elsewhere in the media that: “Two of the worlds biggest cigarette companies- BAT and Rothmans have emerged to create a group selling over 900 billion cigarettes a year around the world, Faced with a decline in sales in the developed world mainly as a result of anti-smoking legislations and publicity, the new giant plans to target the developing world where there is less awareness of the threat of smoking to health and where laws against cigarette advertising is virtually unknown” Food for thought. Health experts estimate that cigarettes will claim ten million lives a year worldwide by the year 2030, of which seven million will be in the developing world. And even though anti-smoking organizations, health experts, scientists in the West and British Medical Association (BMA) have openly opposed the merger arguing it will lead to more deaths in the developing world, the $13 billion merger went on. This shows the power of the Tobacco Industry. It can be argued that, BAT makes lofty financial contributions to the schools, universities and other charitable organizations in Ghana. These are good and well intended because they are done in their corporate interest. However, BAT does not see it in their business interest NOT to advertise to teenagers because teenage consumers are at the core of their business and indeed the very survival of their business.
There is no doubt that BAT is in total control of tobacco distribution and sales in Ghana. They also have a lot of power and influence over the politicians because the politicians and the leaders seem to be in cahoots with them. They depend on their money. This makes it difficult and challenging for the politicians and the government to muster enough courage to develop meaningful policies to ban advertising aimed at Ghanaian teenagers. The politicians seem to have adopted “don’t ask don’t tell policy” at the risk of our youth which account for some 44% of Ghana’s population. I am afraid that this policy would remain as long as there is no hue and cry from the public. But the truth is that lawmakers should enact laws and policies to protect their citizens and not lobbyists and corporate interests.
In 1999 the 50 States in the US sued the major Tobacco Industries. They agreed to pay the States about $300 billion in 25 years as a reimbursement for the public health cost incurred by the States due to tobacco and cigarette related illness. One should ask how much of this settlement money was paid to the third world country, including Ghana? Yet BAT continues aggressively to increase their market shares in Ghana while our leaders seem powerless in dealing with them. Here are excerpts from the US Surgeon General’s Report that exposed the facts about tobacco advertising and promotions, published by the US Public Health Services: : Despite the overwhelming evidence of the adverse health effects from tobacco use, efforts to prevent the onset or continuance of tobacco use face the pervasive challenge of promotion activity by the tobacco industry. Regulating advertising and promotion particularly that directed at young people, is very likely to reduce both the prevalence and initiation of smoking and nicotine addiction. The tobacco industry uses a variety of marketing tools and strategies to influence consumer preference, thereby increasing market share and attracting new consumers especially the youth. In 1998 tobacco companies spent nearly $7 billion – or more than $18 million a day to advertise and promote cigarettes. In recent years, these marketing dollars pay for activities that may have special appeal to young people some as young as 12 years old... Children and teenagers constitute the majority of all new smokers and the industry’s advertising and promotion campaign often have special appeal to these young people These are some of the facts that our leaders and Public Health officials should be aware of in dealing with the tobacco and cigarette advertising and promotion directed at young Ghanaians.
In 1996 the US President- Clinton announced his nation’s first comprehensive program to prevent children and adolescents from smoking cigarettes or using smokeless tobacco and thereby beginning a lifetime nicotine addiction. It was not a popular policy, particularly among the tobacco industry and the advertising agencies because it was aimed at reducing young people’s access to cigarettes. But parents welcomed it and so were public health officials who have to deal with tobacco related diseases. Sometimes leaders must take unpopular decisions in the interest of their citizens.
Ghana, as all developing nations, has a long way to go to win the fight against tobacco smoking; advertising and promotions, but we should recognize the harmful effects of smoking, especially on our youth. The temptation to smoke, like many other things, is a fact of life for many teens. We should educate both our young people and their parents about the hazards of smoking until they able to make informed decision about tobacco smoking. If the parents are informed and recognize when their teen is smoking then, they will enact a plan of successful preventive measures that will enhance the life and health of their teenager and family. However, a country like Ghana, with scarce financial resources, education alone will not do the job especially in the face of intense tobacco marketing and promotions purposefully directed at our teenagers by the tobacco companies. This is where leadership and the power of government are needed.
Ghana should protect and save her youth as the future work force. Cigarette advertising and promotions directed at teenagers should be banned. There should be public outcry and debate for the ban because in my mind, it is the least the government of Ghana can do for her most vulnerable citizens.