On the 31st of May 2016, Uganda joined the rest of the world to mark the World No Tobacco Day (WNTD) as created by the World Health Organization (WHO). The purpose of the day is to draw attention to the negative health effects of tobacco use as well as encourage policies and initiatives aimed at reducing tobacco consumption. This year’s theme - “Get ready for plain packaging” targeted the standardisation of tobacco packaging with measures that restrict or prohibit the use of logos, colours, brand images or promotional information on packaging. The day also coincided with the official launch of Uganda’s Tobacco Control Act (2015).Tobacco legislation has long been a dilemma for policy makers in developing countries who both produce and consume tobacco. While visible benefits accrue from revenues yielded through taxation and export of tobacco products, there are the well-known yet often invisible health risks and challenges that put a strain on already stretched health systems.

In fact life expectancy being higher in countries that consume more tobacco is predominantly a function of their robust health and welfare systems. As such, the large steps taken in tobacco legislation in developed countries can be attributed to the fact that with the exception of the USA and China, most developed economies do not have to contend with being both consumers and producers of tobacco. As Uganda marks the World no tobacco day, it is important for us to remind ourselves that while tobacco generates foreign exchange, it greatly undermines health and increases health spending in a presently challenged health sector.

Tobacco consumption is facilitated by its affordability (you can by individual cigarettes), accessibility, addiction and weak legislation. According to Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS, 2014), 1.3 million Ugandans aged 15 and above used tobacco in 2013. In addition to smoking, a considerable number were secondarily exposed to tobacco in night clubs, indoors and at home. The health burdens of continuous tobacco use include lung cancer, heart & respiratory diseases and complications during pregnancy. Production of tobacco also exposes farmers to risk from tobacco but also the several chemicals used in the production and curing process. Tobacco production causes environmental degradation and ecosystem disruption resulting from intensive use of agrochemicals and deforestation for tobacco leaf curing.

In spite of this, tobacco is one of Uganda’s prime traditional exports and its production contributed an average 77,000USD to the country’s foreign exchange earnings between 2011 and 2015. Trends analysis using statistical abstracts from the Uganda Bureau of statistics also shows that both production and earnings have been rising during the last decade. Although production is undertaken by smallholders, the tobacco value chain is primarily facilitated by British American Tobacco (BAT) which provides farmers with inputs and extension services as well as a ready market. The sharp export increase in 2013 happened when BAT closed its factory in Uganda and moved tobacco processing to Kenya[1]. On the purely economic side, tobacco provides a linkage to value addition and to industrialisation which Uganda lost with the departure of BAT. Uganda was relegated to simply being a producer of tobacco leaf thereby undermining the value addition and industrialisation claim. While increased production and exports can contribute to both household livelihoods, in terms of employment and earnings as well as national gains through increased export earnings and taxes; the health effects of tobacco use are immense. Beyond health there are also other socio-economic factors to consider for example an average smoker in Uganda would have to spend around 15.2% of the national median income to purchase 10 of the cheapest cigarettes available on the market.

While the WHO benchmark for taxing cigarettes recommends that Excise Tax should make up 75 Percent of the price, in Uganda exercise duty currently stands at 35%. This means the country still has a sizeable opportunity to raise revenue from the industry which could result in “a win-win” situation that both reduces tobacco consumption and raises government revenue[2]. With tobacco consumption being so addictive, the product provides an opportunity for increased revenue through taxes as higher taxes sometimes do little to deter consumption but this could have serious consequences for income poverty considerations.

Advocating for effective policies to reduce tobacco consumption

Although Uganda signed and ratified the WHO Framework on Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2004 and 2007 respectively, the comprehensive national legal basis for regulating tobacco use was only passed in September and gazetted in November 2015. The new law which came into force on the 19th of May 2016 introduces the formation of a Tobacco Control Committee, abolition of smoking in public areas, display of stop smoking signage, bans on adverts and promotion of tobacco, prohibits use of electronic cigarettes and outlaws the sale of tobacco products and smoking to youth and minors below 21 years. Successful implementation of this law will depend on the commitment of the public and enforcement by agencies like the police, National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), and municipal environmental officers. Going forward, efforts must be directed to increase awareness among the public and business community about the dangers of cigarette smoking and the punitive actions that may be taken once in fault of the law.

It is important for Uganda to foster a policy and regulatory environment in which the benefits of tobacco production can be maximised without negatively impacting public health. It is also important for Uganda to put in place a facilitative policy and regulatory environment for value addition in the tobacco industry. This will ensure that the country meets its international obligations on tobacco control without undermining the livelihoods of tobacco farmers and the industry itself. In addition there are some lessons to be learnt from the WHO and China who have researched tobacco crop substitution policies which are instrumental in maintaining stability if the country choses to completely phase out tobacco production (though this seems unlikely). There is a lot to be learnt from South Africa’s experience where legislation was combined with education and taxation to effectively reduce smoking. Practical steps like continuous monitoring of smoking trends, periodic reviews of anti-smoking laws and increased tax on cigarettes. Most importantly, legislation needs to balance the health and environmental concerns with both the macro and micro-economic implications.


[1]This is reflected in the sharp increase in tobacco exports in 2013

[2]From the poverty perspective, this would mean that addicts from poor households would spend and even larger proportion of their incomes on tobacco products.