It’s easy enough to buy a smoke at Isa Yakubu’s grocery store on a busy street in Lagos, Nigeria. Never mind if you don’t have much money. Most local merchants are happy to break open a pack and sell cigarettes one at a time single sticks, as they’re known for about 10 Nigerian naira, or 7 cents. “St. Moritz is the most popular brand,” says Yakubu. “But [people] also like Rothmans and Benson & Hedges.”
Single sticks go fast at 7 cents each an especially good price point for kids. And while Yakubu says he doesn’t sell to children, other shopkeepers do. About 25% of teens some as young as 13 use tobacco in some parts of Nigeria, double the smoking rate of Nigerian men, and many pick up the habit by age 11. That’s a demographic powder keg, one that means big trouble if you’re a health expert and big promise if you’re a tobacco executive. Both sides agree on one thing, though: across all of Africa, cigarettes are set for boom times.
In recent years, the world has increasingly been cleaving into two zones: smoking and nonsmoking. In the U.S. and other developed countries, Big Tobacco is in retreat, chased to the curbs by a combination of lawsuits, smoking bans, rising taxes and advertising restrictions. Fewer than 20% of adult Americans now smoke the lowest rate since reliable records have been kept and a tobacco crackdown is under way in Europe, Canada and elsewhere. In April, Congress boosted federal cigarette taxes threefold, from 32 cents a pack to $1. In June, President Barack Obama signed a law giving the FDA the power to regulate cigarettes like any other food or drug.
But the West is not the world, and elsewhere smoking is exploding. In China, 350 million adults are hooked on tobacco, which means the country has more smokers than the U.S. has people. Smoking rates in Indonesia have quintupled since 1970. In Russia, boys as young as 10 start lighting up. This year, tobacco companies will produce more than 5 trillion cigarettes or 830 for every person on the planet.
It’s in Africa, however, that the battle for the hearts, minds and lungs of new smokers is being waged most aggressively and Nigeria offers a telling look at how the fight is unfolding. For all the woes that beset the continent, Africa still enjoys the lowest smoking rates in the world, largely because most people just can’t afford it. In Ghana, the male smoking rate is only 8%; in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s 14%; in Nigeria, it’s 12%. Compare that with 31% in India, 56% in Malaysia and a whopping 61% in China. But the tobacco industry abhors a vacuum, and in recent years, industry players principally London-based British American Tobacco, Switzerland-based Philip Morris International and the U.K.’s Imperial Tobacco have been working hard to fill it. “We’ve done this before,” says Allan Brandt, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and the author of The Cigarette Century. “When something gets regulated here, we move the risk offshore.” Says Michael Eriksen, a former policy adviser for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Africa is in play.”
Spreading the Scourge
Big Tobacco’s footprint in Africa has been hard to miss for a while. British American markets its wares which include Dunhill and Pall Mall in a vast crescent sweeping from South Africa to Congo and west to Ghana, as well as throughout North Africa. In 2003 the company planted its stakes deeper, building a $150 million factory in Nigeria. Philip Morris, whose brands include Marlboro and Chesterfield, has a smaller presence on the continent. “We are a minor, minor player,” says spokesman Greg Prager. But that could change. The company does no business in Nigeria, but it controls about 15% of the market across North Africa and has a scattered 10% share elsewhere. It has also built a new factory in Senegal.
That expansion increasingly happens through the single-stick model, and that’s the traffic that causes the most worry. People who buy cigarettes by the stick are typically the poor, the uneducated or the young all groups less likely to have learned of the perils of smoking. “[A single stick is] much more affordable, and for young people, it’s easier to conceal,” says Babatunde Irukera, an antismoking lawyer working with the Nigerian government.
See TIME’s tobacco covers.
Watch TIME’s video “Au Revoir Cigarettes.”