Why This Mega Foundation is Spending Big to Fight Rising Tobacco Use in Africa

Smoking is one of the leading causes of preventable death in developing countries. The WHO estimates that tobacco use causes around 6 million deaths annually, with most of those occurring in poorer parts of the world. More than a million Chinese alone die from smoking every year. Over the next 20 or so years, the WHO is projecting 100 million tobacco-related deaths worldwide. 

This body count is higher than the deaths caused by malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis combined, but curbing smoking has never emerged as a sexy issue in the global health philanthropy space. For example, while Bono is known as an off-and-on smoker, we've never heard him say anything about the staggering death toll caused by cigarettes. 

Related: Funders Haven’t Forgotten About Smoking. But Why Aren’t They Spending Bigger?

Fortunately, some very deep-pocketed funders are paying attention to this global killer. Michael Bloomberg has made fighting tobacco use his single biggest cause as a philanthropist, a focus that reflects his super-utilitarian approach to philanthropy—namely, spending his biggest bucks to go after the lowest-hanging fruit, in terms of saving lives. 

Though it gets less attention, the other big funder in this space is the Gates Foundation, which recently awarded Good Business a $7.5 million grant to reduce tobacco-related death and disease in Africa.

The London-based organization will focus its anti-tobacco energies on preventing non-smokers and non-tobacco users from picking up the habit. The organization is also planning to apply positive social marketing and behavioral science methods to create a campaign that makes tobacco use less appealing.  

This effort comes at the same time that cigarette and tobacco companies have been pushing hard into African markets, a continent where 77 million already smoke. It's estimated that by 2030, the number of smokers in Africa will rise nearly 40 percent from 2010 levels—the largest expected increase in the world, and a trend that will mean many more Africans dying from tobacco use in the coming century. Efforts that succeed in changing this trajectory, even by small degrees, could save a huge number of lives.

Anti-smoking campaigns are nothing new, and they have been proven to contribute to the decreasing number of tobacco users in the developed world. So the track record of success for such campaigns is pretty solid, here.

Fighting tobacco use isn't the biggest or most well-known of the Gates Foundation's global health priorities, but as we always say, even the smaller grantmaking programs at Gates can be pretty huge. This is a case in point: The foundation has given around $150 million for global anti-smoking projects since 2007. That's a lot of money, but Bloomberg has committed over $600 million to anti-tobacco use campaigns over that same time period, leaving us to wonder why Gates doesn't put comparable resources into this area, given the number of annual deaths and the availability of effective preventive solutions. 

Related: Need a Light? Definitely Not. But Better Data on Smoking Would Be Great

It's great that two of the world's biggest funders are working to bend the curve on global tobacco deaths. But it's rather bewildering that other foundations aren't doing more, here—especially as tobacco companies continue to ramp up their marketing efforts in poor and emerging market countries across the board.