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World no-tobacco day (WNTD) last year saw the debut of a new Senegalese anti-tobacco federation: Federation des ONG et OCB Luttant Contre le Tabagisme (FLCT)—“Federation of NGOs (non-government organisations) and CBOs (Community Based Organisations) Fighting Against Tobacco”.
In the face of intensifying and aggressive tobacco marketing, particularly on the part of American corporations, one might think the morale of Senegalese anti-tobacco activists might be low. After all, they have no real financial means to wage war against the millions spent on advertising to convince the Senegalese that a Marlboro is a ticket to the West. In 1996, Philip Morris earned US$68 billion in revenue, over half from overseas tobacco sales—this adds up to approximately $5 per person in the world. In contrast the World Health Organisation annual contribution to Senegalese WNTD festivities (which never fully trickles down to NGOs) of $1000 adds up to a hundredth of a cent per capita annually. It’s a corporate version of David and Goliath if there ever was one.
Fighting tobacco in Senegal has always been a roller coaster of ups and downs. In 1981, Senegal’s first anti-tobacco corporation Ligue Anti-Tabac, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, pushed for and passed strong anti-tobacco laws which, among other things, banned advertising in the media, prohibited handing out free cigarettes, and called for regulations against smoking in public places. Four years later, due to tobacco industry pressure, most of these laws were thrown out. Those that weren’t were never enforced. The only law still standing is one mandating health warnings on tobacco packets. Seeing as most Senegalese buy cigarettes individually and many are illiterate it is easy to see why the tobacco industry didn’t push hard to overturn this particular law.
Nowadays, the only no-smoking signs in hospitals are near the oxygen tanks, teachers smoke freely in high school classrooms, tobacco ads are rampant on the backs of magazines, and every youth knows—courtesy of the red store counters that saturate the country—that “Marlboro is the cigarette sold most around the world”. In 1992 Mouvement Anti-Tabac/Senegal was founded and established a successful educational campaign in hundreds of local schools. Recently the organisation’s activities have been crippled due to problems associated with a lack of funding. JAMRA, a Muslim anti-drug/AIDS organisation, a long-term co-sponsor of WNTD activities and holder of strong anti-tobacco views, sent letters to the government annually for 10 years calling for an end to the tobacco industry’s “drug trafficking”. Each year it was the same story. Lots of talk and fanfare by officials on 31 May and no follow up until a year later.
Last year 12 organisations with anti-tobacco interests decided to do something about it, forming of a new and promising anti-tobacco federation. The first general assembly was held on 30 May, where 13 individuals, representing eight organisations, were elected officers. The following day the federation kicked off WNTD activities with a march of 150 young people carrying anti-tobacco signs and banners. In honour of last year’s theme “Growing up tobacco free” the programme highlighted personal testimony by young anti-tobacco activities, high school rap groups, and a hilarious “court trial” against “Mr Cigarette” put on by a local school’s theatre troupe.
The new federation faces a formidable task, but while there are no unrealistic expectations, members feel a new strength in their unity.