The 'cigarette smoking index': A totally unscientific way of measuring gender equality in Africa

Today several Muslim-majority nations—where you expect conservative values to predominate—are turning a blind eye to girls lighting up the odd ciggy.

Africa has been the focus of global attention lately as a fresh market for international consumer brands. But it’s not all designer watches and fast food—multinational tobacco companies are increasingly turning to the continent as the “last frontier” in promoting cigarette smoking.

report from the American Cancer Society shows that while Asia currently accounts for the greatest number of smokers, Africa has the greatest potential for growth in future smokers.

Today, Africa makes up 6% of the world’s smokers—14% of African men smoke and 3% of women—but over the next few decades, smoking prevalence in Africa will surpass the Americas by 2030 and Europe by 2050.

The shift is already happening as young Africans smoke more than young people in other regions—9% of African boys light up, a greater proportion than those in the Mediterranean region (8%), South-east Asia (8%) and the Western Pacific (6%).

This means that even though adult male smoking is significantly lower than in all other regions, future male smoking, as these boys grow up, is likely to catch up to that in other regions.

But it’s even more striking with girls, with under-18 girls now smoking just as much as adult women, a 3% prevalence for both.

Cultural disapproval of women smoking, though intact in much of the continent, has fallen faster in some countries more than others.

One surprise is Sierra Leone, which is the country where one in five women smokes, the highest in Africa in a  dataset of 33 African countries compiled by the World Bank.

In a perverse way, war thus broke down some cultural barriers to women occupying some traditionally masculine spaces, including fighting, and, it seems, smoking.

But intriguingly, today several Muslim-majority nations—where you would expect conservative values to predominate—seem to be turning a blind eye to girls lighting up the odd stick, even without a history of conflict. At 11%, Tunisian women come second in Africa in smoking; with men, it’s the highest in Africa, with more than one in two (52%) men smoking.

This might be linked to Tunisia’s strong Mediterranean influences with its café culture, as well as the French colonial experience—France has one of Europe’s highest numbers of female smokers.

Mauritania and Chad also show above-average smoking among women, running counter to what might be expected in these predominantly Muslim, conservative countries.

Several countries of southern Africa, including South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, also have a high proportion of female smokers. But the American Cancer Society reports that cigarette smoking in South Africa has shown a trajectory altogether different from the rest of the region.

Successful interventions
In 1990, South Africa accounted for 39% of the African market; by 2010 it had fallen to 17%. This fall, the report says, was driven by a shrinking in the size of the South African market as a result of successful tobacco control interventions, as well as the growth in the rest of Africa. 

Between 1990 and 2010, the South African market declined by 46%, while the non-South African market grew by 68%.

But if we were to glean some crude “gender-equality” insights from gap between male and female smoking in a country, the most “smoking equal-opportunity” countries are in Central and West Africa.

The Republic of Congo, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger and Nigeria have nearly equal rates in men and women, with less than ten percentage-points between the two.

Egypt and Libya come up as Africa’s most unequal countries for smokers; although more than four in ten men smoke, just 1% of women do.

And even rich Mauritius, heralded as Africa’s most progressive country, makes a rare showing at the bottom of an African list—the country is Africa’s fourth most-unequal country for smokers, where 39% of men light up, but just 5% of women do.


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