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Ban menthol cigarettes, save 29,000 smokers, survey reveals

More than 8,100 Kenyans die every year of tobacco related diseases, while more than 220,000 children and more than 2,737,000 adults continue to use tobacco each day.


A national survey that was conducted twice in 2012 and in 2018 by researchers from the University of Nairobi, the Kenya Medical Research Institute, and in collaboration with the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project (ITC Project), centred at the University of Waterloo in Canada has found that Government of Kenya needs to strengthen its tobacco control efforts.


The new ITC survey Report that was released this week by the Ministry of Health highlighted the threat from menthol cigarettes, saying that if Kenya was to ban menthol cigarettes, it would lead to 29,000 more Kenyan smokers to quit.


According to the survey, menthols which are particularly popular in Kenya is smoked by 1 in 5 smokers which is higher than in most high-income countries.


“Over two-thirds of Kenyan smokers incorrectly believe that menthols are less harmful than cigarettes, but Kenya needs to join more than 30 countries and jurisdictions that have banned menthol cigarettes, including Canada, Senegal, Nigeria, Uganda, Ethiopia, and the EU.” the Report indicates.


Canada and the European Union have banned menthol cigarettes because menthol reduces the harshness of tobacco smoke, which makes it easier for children and young adults to take up smoking.


Although Kenya is making progress towards combatting smoking through strong tobacco control policies like picture-based health warnings, the report, however, notes that there still significant challenges remaining.


The Report was released, Monday, as the world commemorated the World Health Organization ‘World No Tobacco Day’, an annual event whose theme in 2021 is “Commit to Quit.”


Kenya introduced three picture-based health warnings on cigarette packages in 2016, following the unsuccessful challenge by British American Tobacco (BAT) and the ITC Kenya surveys at least found that introduction of picture warnings increased the effectiveness.


“Awareness of the warnings increased from 64 per cent to 72 per cent of smokers; thinking about the health risks of smoking increased from 28 per cent to 43 per cent of smokers while smokers who said that health warnings made them more likely to quit, increased from 24 per cent to 38 per cent,” the Report shows.


The Report further shows that although the 2014 tobacco control regulations approved 15 new pictorial warnings for both smoked and smokeless products, at the time of the 2018 survey, only three warnings had been implemented, and the warnings on smokeless tobacco had not been uniformly introduced.


“There is a need for Kenya to increase the size of their health warnings, from their current 30 per cent to at least 50 per cent, which is the required size of warnings under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC)”, Professor Geoffrey T. Fong, of the University of Waterloo in Canada, Chief Principal Investigator of the ITC Project said in the Report.


“Large pictorial warnings that meet and exceed the minimum size guidelines of Article 11 of the FCTC are long overdue in Kenya”, Dr. Fong said, adding that If Kenya were to release the full set of 15 rotating warnings and enforce the ban on the sale of single cigarettes, there would be significant benefits in motivating smokers to quit and reducing the number of young people who start smoking.


The survey also found that even smokers support stronger health warnings and other tobacco control policies with 73 per cent of them being in favour of more health information on cigarette health warnings and 84 per cent in favour of more health information on smokeless tobacco warnings.


According to the report, Smokeless tobacco is the primary form of tobacco used by Kenyan women and the survey found that only 12 per cent of smokeless tobacco users reported noticing health warnings on smokeless tobacco.


“The warnings on smokeless tobacco had not been uniformly introduced since most smokeless tobacco is sold in loose form instead of packaged and thus most smokeless tobacco users are not exposed to health warnings at all,” the Report says.


Even as glaring challenges in the tobacco industry affect Kenya as a country, it is obligated to implement strong national policies and is currently working with WHO among 28 other countries in a campaign to support tobacco users who are actively taking steps to quit but still need help to succeed.


The World Health Organization’s ‘Commit to Quit’ tobacco campaign has made resources from its Quitting Toolkit freely available to more than a billion tobacco users, less than five months into the year-long campaign.


WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that it is imperative that countries play their part by joining the WHO campaign and creating tobacco-free environments that give people the information, support and tools they need to quit, and quit for good.


Other African countries among the 29 countries involved in the campaign are Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Sudan.

By Wangari Ndirangu

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