Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Death Industry

 Jordan has surpassed Indonesia to have the highest smoking rates in the world. Including e-cigarettes and other “smokeless” products, more than eight in 10 Jordanian men are nicotine users. Surveys show tobacco use is still growing, on the back of a rise in women taking up the habit and the popularity of water pipes, which doctors say can be equivalent to consuming approximately three packs of cigarettes over a 45-minute session. Analysts suspect smoking rates may be just as high in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon and Syria – Jordan is just advanced and stable enough to be able to measure its problem.

“In Jordan we consider someone who smokes a pack a day to be a light smoker,” Firas al-Hawari, a physician who directs an anti-smoking clinic says. “We have people who smoke three, five, seven packs a day.Often their offspring have been exposed to so much secondhand smoke that they have become addicted, too. “For every four cigarettes their parent has smoked, the child has smoked one.”

The impacts of so much smoking are already stark: tobacco use is linked to one in eight deaths in the country, compared with one in 10 deaths worldwide, and costs Jordan’s GDP an estimated three times the global average. The true scale of the problem will be known in about 2030, when a bulk of the country’s disproportionately young population reaches 40 – the age at which tobacco-related illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer, start to manifest. 

“It’s going to cause an enormous surge in non-communicable diseases that we won’t be able to handle,” Hawari says.

Smoking used to be endemic in wealthier countries such as the US, Australia and many in Europe. But decades of aggressive public health campaigns and restrictions on the ability of tobacco companies to advertise and lobby have succeeded in dramatically cutting their smoking rates. Many of those corporate tactics have now migrated to countries in the Middle East and Africa, where regulations are more lax and poorly enforced. The majority of the world’s smokers now live in middle- and lower-income countries.

Raouf Alebshehy, a monitoring coordinator in the tobacco control research group at the University of Bath, explains, "One of the important factors we have found in this region is that the multinational companies started to invest and expand here. They started to shift work from developed markets to emerging markets here and in Africa where tobacco demand is still growing, and they bought up local manufacturers.”

Jordan has the most tobacco company interference in policymaking in the world after Japan, according to a 2019 analysis by a civil society group

“Big tobacco is preying on our countries, wanting to really own the lungs of our youth,” says Dina Mired, the president of the Union for International Cancer Control. “And they are doing so successfully.”

Those who push to implement the same anti-smoking laws that have been effective overseas say they are warned of the financial impact in a country where tobacco taxes make up 18% of annual revenues (pre-Covid figures)

“Members of parliament tell me: ‘This is an economic matter, you are affecting the Jordanian economy and threatening the jobs of people working in the industry’,” says Mervat Mheerat, the deputy manager for health in Greater Amman Municipality. “They correlate tobacco with the economy. And that’s the message they get from the tobacco industry.”

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