The Hidden Threat: Tobacco’s Grip on Kenya’s Youth.

The Hidden Threat: Tobacco’s Grip on Kenya’s Youth.

Walking through the bustling streets of Nairobi, it’s hard to ignore the vibrant energy of Kenya’s youth. They are the backbone of our future, yet an insidious threat is slowly eroding their potential: tobacco. As we approach World No Tobacco Day 2024, we must confront the stark reality that tobacco use among young Kenyans is a growing concern. The question we must ask ourselves is simple yet profound: is this the future we want for our youth?

According to the World Health Organization, 7.3% of young people aged 15-24 have used some form of tobacco. More alarmingly, 3.2% currently smoke tobacco products, 0.8% use smokeless products, and 3.4% have tried e-cigarettes. These numbers may seem small, but they represent thousands of lives teetering on the edge of addiction and disease.

The average age of initiation for traditional tobacco products in Kenya is shockingly young—just six years old. For e-cigarettes, it’s 17, and for nicotine pouches, 20. These early beginnings set the stage for a lifetime of dependency and health issues. How did we let it get this far?

Kenyan youth who use tobacco consume, on average, six manufactured cigarettes, one hand-rolled cigarette, one e-cigarette, and two pipes full of tobacco daily. They also use snuff and kuber twice each day. This daily dose of danger is not just a statistic; it’s a slow march towards chronic illnesses like cancer, respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

In Kenya, tobacco claims 12,000 lives each year. One in six deaths from tobacco-related illnesses, including cancer and tuberculosis, is due to cigarette smoking. From 2012 to 2021, tobacco was responsible for 70.5% of laryngeal cancer deaths. Is this the legacy we want to leave behind?

The economic impact of tobacco is staggering. For every dollar earned from the tobacco industry, the Kenyan economy loses between $2.2 and $3. In 2021, tobacco-related illnesses cost Kenya between $544.4 and $756.2 million, with $396 million spent on treatment alone. The indirect costs, such as productivity losses, add up to another $148-$360 million. Lung cancer treatment, for example, costs $23,365 per person—a crippling expense for many families.

The tobacco industry’s relentless targeting of youth is deeply concerning. Despite bans on advertising, promotion, and sponsorship, 9.5% of Kenyans still see tobacco brand names or logos on clothing, 4.5% encounter ads on social media, and 2.4% receive free samples. The industry’s tactics include using social media influencers, sponsoring events, and placing products near schools—all designed to entice young people into a lifetime of addiction.

In 2019, British American Tobacco (BAT) launched a campaign using social media influencers to market nicotine pouches, with Kenya as a key trial market. Such strategies directly contribute to the alarming statistic that 67.8% of young e-cigarette users prefer these products for their flavors, while 49.6% are misled into believing they are less harmful than traditional cigarettes.

As we mark World No Tobacco Day 2024, it’s time to ask ourselves: How can we protect our youth from the grasp of tobacco? The answer lies in collective action. Governments, communities, and individuals must come together to enforce stricter regulations, increase tobacco taxes, and launch anti-tobacco campaigns with hard-hitting messages.

We must also push for larger graphic health warnings on all tobacco and nicotine products to educate young people about their dangers. Bans on advertising, promotion, sponsorship, and online sales of e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches are crucial to reducing their accessibility.

Kenya’s youth deserve a future free from the chains of tobacco addiction. They deserve to breathe clean air, live healthy lives, and realize their full potential. Let’s commit to fighting this epidemic. Together, we can create a healthier, brighter future for Kenya’s next generation. Are we ready to rise to the challenge?

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