The World’s Smoking Capital Is Not What You Think

Why you should care

Be … cough.

Geo facts & figures
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News flash: Smoking is bad for you. Wait, you knew that? Nevertheless, cigarettes continue to have a certain worldwide appeal among rebellious teenagers in Sydney and white-haired Parisian bohemians alike. But you won’t find the world’s heaviest smokers in a café full of existentialists. 

Mauritania has the world’s highest rate of tobacco consumption — an average of 41 cigarettes a day.

That’s according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And yes, that’s enough smoke to make smog experts in Los Angeles and Beijing cringe. This Muslim West African country has long been part of the trade route between North and sub-Saharan Africa, where tobacco was a precious commodity and even used as currency for trade. But its residents’ smoking habit fits into a new trend. While Western nations are quitting the cigs, developing nations are picking up the habit. According to a Lancet study, the continent’s rate of smoking is still only 14 percent (pretty low compared with America’s 23 percent), but its growth is the highest in the world.

Why are developing nations lighting up? Prabhat Jha, professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto, says the tobacco industry uses the lack of tobacco control — from advertising bans to warning labels — in places like Mauritania to push cigarettes as a symbol of “Westernization” or “being modern.”

Rising smoking rates is bad news for countries with already weak national health systems. Ahmed E. Ogwell Ouma, head of the World Health Organization’s Tobacco Control program in Africa, calls Mauritania’s growing number of smokers “very worrisome.” According to Ouma, the rates of lung cancer in Mauritania are rising fast. Women are particularly vulnerable; instead of smoking, they chew the tobacco, which has caused an increase of cancers of the mouth almost exclusively in females.

But the Mauritanian government is determined to curb this deadly habit. For starters, the president recently announced a significant raise on tobacco taxes — 7.5 percent of the current price. The money collected through this tax (the second of its type on the continent, after Botswana) will be exclusively used to fund smoke-related public services, from secession programs to a newly created state-of-the-art cancer ward.

Mauritania is also considering a tobacco control bill. The text includes a variety of methods for reducing the number of smokers, including setting a sell ban for minors (while it’s not customary for children to smoke, it is not illegal), a ban on smoking in public places and advertisement. The bill will be debated in Parliament and could soon become law. (Mauritania’s Ministry of Health did not respond to request for comment.)

Still, some experts think focusing on dissuasion programs is not enough. “Education does not work well,” notes Jha. “Tell children and young adults … to not smoke and they will do the opposite.” In his opinion, developing countries need to stand up to the international tobacco lobbies and raise taxes even more. For now, though, smokers of the world have a new mecca: Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. It should be pretty easy to find — just follow the smoke.


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