Democratic Republic of Congo

Addiction to Sniffing Tobacco on the Rise in DRC

Tobacco is one of DRC’s most valuable agricultural exports, and traditional healers there often tell patients to sniff tobacco as a remedy for common health problems. But sniffing tobacco carries many of the same deadly health risks as smoking tobacco, and addiction to snuff is on the rise.

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Addiction to Sniffing Tobacco on the Rise in DRC

Francine Ishay Mulumba, GPJ DRC

Modeda Isambaboza began sniffing tobacco to help with his sinusitis. Now, he says he can’t go more than 15 minutes without using.

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KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — “I’m a slave to my addiction,” says Modeda Isambaboza.

“Not a single day goes by that I don’t sniff it,” he says of his tobacco habit.

Sitting in the workshop of his refrigerator repair business, Isambaboza says that a friend introduced him to tobacco powder as a potential remedy for his sinusitis.

Now, the locally grown tobacco is a continual part of the daily routine of the 57-year-old father of 12.

“I must sniff this every 10 to 15 minutes,” he says. “It’s something I can’t live without. I do whatever it takes to find money to buy it.”

Tobacco is among DRC’s most valuable agricultural exports, along with green coffee beans and sugar. It’s commonly prescribed by traditional healers to treat common health issues such as sinusitis, but local health care professionals say addiction is on the rise.

Sniffing tobacco, often called snuff or tumbaco locally, is gaining popularity, locals say, though use of tobacco has been a constant here. According to the nation’s 2013-2014 Demographic and Health Survey, the most recent available, 26.5 percent of men aged 15-59 and 4.1 percent of women aged 15-59 here use tobacco.

Dr. Marcel Angalo says smokeless tobacco is extremely addictive and carries dangerous health risks similar to those of cigarettes. The risks of cancers, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke are all common.

I must sniff this every 10 to 15 minutes. It’s something I can’t live without. I do whatever it takes to find money to buy it.

Lolo Ofoili, head of the Kisangani Health Zone, a network of clinics and hospitals, confirms that the use of homemade dried and ground tobacco is widespread.

“Once reserved for the elderly, it’s now a psychoactive stimulant which has increased in popularity among young people,” he says.

Young people say sniffing tobacco is popular, especially at the local university.

Joseph Tukisu, 26, a student at the Université de Kisangani, the main university here, says powdered tobacco is his solution to fight headaches and fatigue.

“When the head can’t withstand the weight of studies, it’s wise to consume powdered tobacco,” Tukisu says.

Sniffing tobacco is common among older people, too.

Simon Asimbo, 75, says powdered tobacco helps him beat the pain of aging.

“Powdered tobacco remains a cure for my rheumatoid arthritis,” he says.

Ofoili says there are no addiction centers and few local resources to treat addiction here. Education and outreach are all that is available.

“We want a better tomorrow for the young people of Tshopo province,” he says. “And to have this dream come true, we’ve embarked on the process of raising awareness about the effects of powdered tobacco.”

Ndahayo Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.