Today is World No Tobacco Day. Our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA smokes out heart-rending myths about menthol cigarettes.
It is a chilly morning in Blantyre and a surge in passers-by wearing pullovers says it all.
“Brace up for colder days in June,” says John Mwenda, 42, a security guard at Ginnery Corner.
But he has a peculiar way of keeping his shivering frame warm.
“A cigarette, please; my throat needs some fire,” he tells a vendor who sells cigarettes, candies and drinks by the roadside.
Time check is 7am. There are almost 10 tobacco brands on sale, but Mwenda, like most smokers sitting on the rocks nearby, prefers those with menthol.
In 10 minutes, 15 people stop over to purchase cigarettes and 12 of them demand ones with “menthol”, a natural flavour extracted from mint flowers.
Widespread sales and lighting up of cigarettes in public places expose lack of laws regulating smoking in the tobacco-growing country.
World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that diseases associated with the cash crop kill almost 7.1 million people globally and 5 700 in Malawi every year.
The killers include coronary heart conditions, which causes stroke—the country’s fourth largest cause of death which paralysed Mwenda’s uncle four years ago.
Tobacco use, including second-hand smoke, is the second-leading cause of cardiovascular diseases, after high blood pressure. It contributes to about 12 percent of heart diseases, the worst killer worldwide.
However, Mwenda and his colleagues perceive menthol cigarettes as smoother and less toxic.
“Some cigarettes leave a harsh aftertaste, those with menthol are cool,” says the father of two, exhaling smoke.
Admittedly, he started smoking tobacco in 1998 to look cool.
“Nowadays, I cannot eat, drink, sleep or go to work without smoking. I switched to menthol because of coughs and chest pains. I love the sensation. No coughs, no sour taste. No wrinkles. It’s cool,” he says.
The most commonly marketed cigarette flavour—found in sweets and toothpaste—represents almost 10 percent of the global cigarette market, WHO reports.
“Menthol products are often marketed as less irritating alternatives to regular products, with explicit health claims, as well as sensory descriptors and imagery implying that menthol products are safer or easier to use than non-menthol products,” says WHO.
In 2015, the United Nations agency called for prompt elimination of menthol cigarettes, saying there is already “sufficient evidence” and “significant health benefits” to ban it.
Its cooling effect creates a greater public health burden by making smoking appear cool, even to the youth who are disproportionately hooked.
“Menthol cigarettes are associated with increased initiation and progression to regular smoking-and both adolescent and adolescent and adult menthol smokers show greater signs of nicotine dependence and are less likely to successfully quit compared to non-menthol smokers, with high rates of relapse,” warns WHO.
Some countries, including Ethiopia, Chile and Canada, have banned sale of menthol products to protect people from tobacco smoke.
But Malawi, where tobacco is the largest export, is reluctant to sign the WHO Convention Framework on Tobacco Control (CFTC).
In the country, second-hand smoke—which kills almost 900 000 non-smokers a year—is widespread as people smoke the so-called ‘green-gold’ anywhere.
“Every death from tobacco is preventable and every government has the power to reduce the human and economic toll of tobacco,” says American Cancer Society health and economic policy researcher Jeffrey Drope, who co-edited the Tobacco Atlas released in March.
Minister of Health Atupele Muluzi warns against “outdated thinking”, saying the dangers of smoking are clear and “I do not condone smoking in any way.
“We [government] are looking at ways to reduce the number of smokers and resource burdens that they present to our health sector. This includes reviewing our public policy on issues such as tobacco advertising and taxation,” he says.
Malawi Health Equity Network (Mhen) executive director George Jobe wants the government to show “passion for the health of Malawians” by signing the CFTC which demands bans on public smoking and high tax on cigarettes, which cost as low as K50 each, locally.
“It is hazardous that non-smokers are forced to close their noses in public places where a smoker is exhaling smoke. People smoke freely everywhere: in streets, public transport and lodges rooms. There is need for a law to ban this,” he says.
Jobe reckons tobacco taxes and levies can make cigarettes less affordable and part of the solution.
“The tobacco industry is contributing to the disease burden. It needs to share a direct responsibility in the health financing in addition to existing taxes,” he argues.
He envisions government using the levy to obtain more healthcare workers, drugs and medical supplies “to mop the health damage” caused by the tobacco industry. n