Growing Tobacco Use Among Adolescents and Women in Kenya and Across Africa

May 27, 2024


Grace Nduku Kyule


Shukri Mohamed

Associate Research Scientist


In recent years, a troubling trend has emerged in Kenya and across Africa: the increasing use of tobacco products among young adolescents, particularly among women. While the overall prevalence of tobacco use in Africa remains relatively low compared to many other regions, the consumption of cigarettes and other types of tobacco products by youth and women is on the rise. This surge is largely driven by aggressive marketing strategies from tobacco companies targeting low- and middle-income countries to expand their consumer base. Despite global efforts to curb tobacco consumption among vulnerable populations, including youth and women, statistics reveal a concerning rise in tobacco use among these groups. A survey conducted by the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) and the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) found that 6.0% of primary school students and 14.5% of secondary school students in Kenya have used tobacco, with cigarettes being the most commonly used product at 9.2%. This increase is attributed to several factors, including targeted tobacco advertisements and promotions designed to recruit new users and discourage current users from quitting.

Adolescence is a critical developmental stage where habits formed can have lifelong consequences. Unfortunately, many adolescents across Africa are turning to tobacco products at an alarming rate. According to the Kenya Global Youth Tobacco Survey of 2013, 9.9% of students aged 13–15 years were using tobacco products, with 6.7% of girls currently using some form of tobacco. Recent studies have shown that the marketing efforts of the tobacco industry play a crucial role in influencing adolescents’ behavior, more so than that of adults. Tobacco manufacturers capitalize on this by heavily investing in advertisements targeting young people. Additionally, the industry employs creative strategies to encourage tobacco use, such as introducing appealing flavors like mint and strawberries to entice young users.

In Kenya, there’s a concerning trend of teenagers increasingly experimenting with tobacco, often unaware of its harmful effects, driven by enticing packaging and deceptive marketing portraying new products as harmless. These tactics create a false perception of independence, empowerment, and femininity, luring youngsters and women into tobacco use while normalizing smoking among women. Additionally, tobacco products are readily available in various outlets, ranging from small shops and kiosks to big supermarkets, making them easily accessible for young people and women alike. Shockingly, most adolescents under 18 report not being refused to purchase tobacco due to their age. These factors, combined with exposure to tobacco users in public places such as schools and at home, significantly contribute to normalizing tobacco use behavior and increasing the likelihood of initiation among young adolescents and women.

The rise of tobacco use among adolescents and women in Kenya and Africa has health implications. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 22,000 women die every year from tobacco-associated diseases. Initiating smoking at a young age increases the risk of developing life-threatening chronic conditions later in life, including impaired lung function, certain cancers, respiratory disorders, and cardiovascular diseases, among others. For young women, tobacco use during pregnancy can lead to adverse effects on maternal and fetal health. Additionally, the economic burden of tobacco-related diseases strains healthcare systems and hampers economic development by reducing productivity and increasing healthcare costs. Addressing this potential public health crisis is essential and requires a multi-faceted approach involving the government.

In alignment with this year’s World No Tobacco Day theme, “Protecting Children from Tobacco Industry Interference,” efforts must be made to combat the increasing use of tobacco products among adolescents and young women in Kenya and across Africa. Concerted efforts are needed from governments, communities, and healthcare providers. National and county governments should enforce strict regulations on tobacco advertising, particularly those targeting youngsters and women, to deter initiation among these groups. At an individual level, current smokers can be incentivized to quit through comprehensive tobacco control policies such as increased tobacco taxation, smoke-free laws in public spaces, and access to cessation services.

It is also vital to discourage youth, adolescents, and young women who have never used tobacco from starting. This can be achieved by raising awareness about the negative side-effects of nicotine through targeted education and awareness campaigns. These campaigns should dispel myths surrounding smoking and highlight the health risks associated with tobacco use. Additionally, enforcing bans on the sale of tobacco products to minors will make it more difficult for young people to access tobacco. These combined efforts can safeguard the health of young people and minimize the burden of tobacco-related diseases.

In line with addressing the burden of tobacco use, the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) and Development Gateway (DG) have partnered to gather up-to-date data across three countries in Africa, namely Kenya, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, through the DaYTA project. This initiative aims to address data gaps on tobacco use among adolescents and gather insights on tobacco use patterns. The results from this study will help guide governments and policymakers in making informed decisions and safeguarding the young population.