Drug and substance abuse: A looming crisis for Zimbabwe’s young population

Michael Magoronga, magorongamk@gmail.com 


As Zimbabwe continues the fight against drug and substance abuse, various measures have been put in place to curb the menace which is threatening to wipe out future generations.

The Government has since declared drug and substance abuse a national disaster and set up a Cabinet taskforce to spearhead efforts to eradicate the scourge.   Drugs and substances come in different forms ranging from alcoholic beverages with alarming alcohol content to raw marijuana, ganja cakes and shisha among a host of other substances.

Some have gone out of their way to manufacture their bizarre forms of substances made out of cough syrup, bulbs, diapers, cleaning detergents and lately human skeletons.

Besides the uncouth behaviour of those under the influence of drugs, these substances also fuel non-communicable diseases that are not easily detected and can be fatal.

During the Christmas holidays, a disturbing video of children as young as seven years old who were drinking alcohol went viral and drew the ire of the public and human rights groups who questioned how these children had laid their hands on the alcoholic beverages.

There is no doubt that alcoholic beverages are dangerous if consumed in excess by adults, let alone by children.

On the other hand, tobacco-related substances have long-term and irreversible effects.

Although most tobacco products are consumed in private, it is the worrying trend of products such as ganja cakes and popcorn as well as the popular shisha, which is popular among the youths, that is being consumed in public places.

Shisha is a mixture of tobacco, molasses, glycerin and flavourings, and has become so common in bars and other adult entertainment places around the country such that some have grown addicted and cannot do without it.

Shisha is freely smoked notwithstanding its adverse effects.

According to research, in a shisha session which usually lasts 20 to 80 minutes, a smoker can inhale the same amount of smoke as a cigarette smoker consuming over 100 cigarettes.

All this despite the fact that the tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced, killing more than eight million people a year around the world.

More than seven million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while around 1,2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke.

This brings to the fore the need for the Government to step up efforts to control tobacco use in the country.

According to a World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control WHO (FCTC) shadow report produced by Youth against Alcoholism and Drug Dependency (YADD) in September 2023, Zimbabwe has not developed a comprehensive multi-sectorial national tobacco control strategy, nor has it protected its public health policies from the interference of the tobacco industry and its allies.

Although Zimbabwe enacted the Public Health (Control of Tobacco) Regulations in 2002, which prohibit smoking in public places, workplaces, and public transport, the enforcement and compliance of these regulations are weak, and there are many exemptions and loopholes that allow smoking in undesignated areas, reads the report.

The report also notes the need to increase excise taxes.

“Zimbabwe should increase the excise tax rate on tobacco products to at least 70 percent of the retail price, as recommended by the WHO. This would reduce the affordability and consumption of tobacco, as well as generate more revenue for the Government. Zimbabwe should also adopt a uniform specific tax system that is adjusted regularly for inflation and income growth, as this would simplify the tax administration and reduce the opportunities for tax avoidance and evasion. Zimbabwe should earmark a portion of the tobacco tax revenue for tobacco control and health promotion activities,” reads the report.

The shadow WHO FCTC report also recommends that Zimbabwe should ban all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, including the display of tobacco products at points of sale, sponsorship of sporting and cultural events and cross-border advertising originating from the country as well as to ratify the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, which aims to prevent tobacco smuggling and counterfeiting among other measures.

The prevailing situation in the country comes at a time when non-communicable diseases have been on the increase with cancers being the most dominant and claiming the lives of many.

Ministry of Health and Child Care public relations manager, Mr Donald Mujiri said although he didn’t readily have statistics on tobacco and its relationship with non-communicable diseases (NCDs), the country is facing challenges with NCDs.  According to the Cancer Association of Zimbabwe (CAZ), in 2018 alone, there were 7 841 new cancer incidents recorded and 2 043 deaths.

CAZ Information, Research and Evaluation Officer, Mr Lovemore Makurirofa said tobacco should be discouraged at all costs as it is the major cause, not only of cancers but other non-communicable diseases.

“We discourage tobacco consumption at all costs be it smoking, inhaling or chewing or any other form of consuming tobacco as it increases the chances of developing not only cancer but other forms of non-communicable diseases. Tobacco contains a number of cosmogonic chemicals like tar and nicotine among others which if inhaled, have the capability of stimulating abnormality of cells in one’s body,” he said.

For those who are already undergoing treatment and are still smoking, it affects the treatment process.

“Smoking tobacco affects one’s general health such as the breathing and metabolism processes in the body. These are likely to be constricted as a result of tobacco use. There is also evidence that quitting smoking reverses damages that would have been caused by the consumption of tobacco,” said Mr Makurirofa.

Worryingly, a significant number of diseases caused by tobacco consumption are not easily detected resulting in premature death.

“Most of these diseases, about 80 percent, are diagnosed late making it difficult for them to be treated, hence the call to do away with harmful practices like smoking and heavy drinking,” said Mr Makurirofa.

Youth Against Alcoholism and Drug Dependency (YADD) executive director Mr Tungamirai Zimonte said Zimbabwe is affected by a huge NCD burden hence regulating unhealthy commodities that result in the acquisition of NCDs is a priority.

“One of the remedies is increasing excise tax on harmful commodities like tobacco and channel the resources to public health to deal with resultant problems like NCDs,” he said.

Meanwhile, Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) Executive director, Mr Itai Josh Rusike is of the idea that 30 to 40 percent of cancers are preventable by avoiding certain known risk factors.

“The main factors contributing to the increasing incidents of cancer in Zimbabwe include infectious agents, increasing tobacco use, harmful alcohol use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and environmental factors,” he said.

Mr Rusike believes the Government must commit to health as a human rights issue and mobilise domestic resources to fund a health benefit that is accessible to everyone.

“The Government is currently reviewing the strategy by consulting stakeholders in the health sector, to formulate, plan and implement a co-ordinated programme for the prevention and control of cancer in Zimbabwe. The plan will provide guidance, leadership and co-ordination to ensure effective partnerships for cancer control,” said Mr Rusike.

Given the damages caused by tobacco consumption, there is a need for the Government to review the country’s tobacco policies and save lives