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It's easy enough to buy a smoke at Isa Yakubu's grocery store on a busy street in Lagos, Nigeria. Never mind if you don't have much money. Most local merchants are happy to break open a pack and sell cigarettes one at a time — single sticks, as they're known — for about 10 Nigerian naira, or 7 cents. "St. Moritz is the most popular brand," says Yakubu. "But [people] also like Rothmans and Benson & Hedges."
Single sticks go fast at 7 cents each — an especially good price point for kids. And while Yakubu says he doesn't sell to children, other shopkeepers do. About 25% of teens — some as young as 13 — use tobacco in some parts of Nigeria, double the smoking rate of Nigerian men, and many pick up the habit by age 11. That's a demographic powder keg, one that means big trouble if you're a health expert and big promise if you're a tobacco executive. Both sides agree on one thing, though: across all of Africa, cigarettes are set for boom times.
In recent years, the world has increasingly been cleaving into two zones: smoking and nonsmoking. In the U.S. and other developed countries, Big Tobacco is in retreat, chased to the curbs by a combination of lawsuits, smoking bans, rising taxes and advertising restrictions. Fewer than 20% of adult Americans now smoke — the lowest rate since reliable records have been kept — and a tobacco crackdown is under way in Europe, Canada and elsewhere. In April, Congress boosted federal cigarette taxes threefold, from 32 cents a pack to $1. In June, President Barack Obama signed a law giving the FDA the power to regulate cigarettes like any other food or drug.
But the West is not the world, and elsewhere smoking is exploding. In China, 350 million adults are hooked on tobacco, which means the country has more smokers than the U.S. has people. Smoking rates in Indonesia have quintupled since 1970. In Russia, boys as young as 10 start lighting up. This year, tobacco companies will produce more than 5 trillion cigarettes — or 830 for every person on the planet.
But the tobacco industry abhors a vacuum, and in recent years, industry players — principally London-based British American Tobacco, Switzerland-based Philip Morris International and the U.K.'s Imperial Tobacco — have been working hard to fill it. "We've done this before," says Allan Brandt, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and the author of The Cigarette Century. "When something gets regulated here, we move the risk offshore." Says Michael Eriksen, a former policy adviser for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Africa is in play."