Group of underage boys puff at cigarette stubs as they sit on a pavement leaning against a wall of a shopping mall in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.
But the three boys who live on the streets, Prichard age 11, Ben 14 and Trynos 16, are wholly oblivious to the health effects of smoking.
For them, smoking is just a pastime so they gathering the dumped stubs on the streets of Harare.
“We have nothing to do on the streets and smoking gives us joy,” Trynos told Anadolu Agency.
A survey conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2015 showed 20% of Zimbabwe’s youth between the ages of 13 and 15 are smokers.
The WHO found nearly 12.5% of Zimbabwe’s children began smoking at the tender age of 7.
As Zimbabwe grapples with underage smoking, the trio engage in the activity as nations commemorate May 31 the annual World NO Tobacco Day.
Increasing child smokers
The growing epidemic of tobacco use among Zimbabwe’s underage children is happening as youth living on the streets smoking freely, unaware of the harmful effects of tobacco.
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization said tobacco stands out as Zimbabwe’s largest export commodity, accounting for nearly 10% of its GDP.
Contributing unethically to the GDP are school-aged children, to whom smoking has become common.
But efforts in the past by groups like the Health Services Board to introduce tobacco control measures has fallen on deaf ears.
Smoking and selling tobacco products to those under the age of 18 is forbidden by law in Zimbabwe but the legislation lacks enforcement.
Government weak in fighting child smoking
As detailed accounts of rising underage smoking are illuminated, the government has tried but failed to meet the challenges.
Lovemore Mumbengeranwa, who headed the Health Services Board, went on record calling for new tobacco control and prevention programs.
“This will save lives, reduce illnesses, and help reduce the economic burden associated with tobacco-related illness and lost productivity,” said Mumbengeranwa.
Five years later, nothing has taken place to curtail underage smoking in the southern African nation.
In fact, Zimbabwe stands as one of the top tobacco producing African nations, despite five years ago becoming the 180th country to ratify the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a treaty meant to regulate tobacco production, sales, advertising and taxation.
Now, as children puff cigarettes stubs, even public health specialists like Shungu Munyati, who headed WHO-funded research on child smoking here, felt action was necessary to surmount the challenge.
For other health experts like Senelise Sithole, an official in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, underage smoking has come with worse challenges.
“When young people smoke, this results into negative lifestyles; smoking combined with drinking brings in risky behaviors which may lead to exposing oneself to HIV and AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections,” Sithole told Anadolu Agency.
Poor economy fueling underage smoking
But, clobbered with joblessness, Zimbabwe’s youth like Douglas Chihota, 17, based in the Mabvuku high density suburb of Harare, smoking is a way to occupy time.
“If we had jobs as young people, we would not be smoking nor taking drugs,” said Chihota, who said he completed high school last year.
Unemployment in Zimbabwe stands at 90%, according to the primary trade union federation, Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).
While unemployment contributes to heavy smoking among underage children, health experts like Margaret Dhliwayo said the government’s attitude needs to change.
“The law needs to take its course in terms of enforcing legislation so that young people do not have access to cigarettes; right now children can buy cigarettes and nobody really questions what age they are,” said Dhliwayo.
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