In 1977 at the age of 14, Tonny Owana lit a cigarette. Although he coughed uncontrollably due to the hostile tobacco inhalation, he was cheered on by peers.
It felt like an initiation of sorts into high school and adulthood, especially since he was into the self-discovery phase of adolescence.
“It felt ‘cool’ to smoke because it was illegal at school. We also watched film stars of the time such as James Bond smoke and these were characters we looked up to,” Owana, a veteran journalist and senior manager at Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC), recounts.
With friends, they would sneak out of St Mary’s College Kisubi to buy cigarettes and alcohol, which they would take during lunch breaks and at night.
For Bryan McKenzie Sabiti, it started at a later stage while in Senior Four. He initially resisted but later gave in to pressure from friends who always asked him to try a puff or two.
“During holidays, I would party with friends at the then popular DV8 bar on Wilson Street. I would do anything to fit in. So, even when I wanted to cough, I would compress it. One thing i know for sure is that I had bad breath after every smoking session,” the radio presenter recollects.
The 2013 Uganda Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) indicates that 73 per cent of 20 to 34 year-old males who had ever smoked on a daily basis started smoking before the age of 20.
GATS is the global standard for systematically monitoring adult tobacco use (smoking and smokeless) and tracks key tobacco control indicators. Whereas the report states that daily urban cigarette smokers take an average of seven cigarettes per day and six cigarettes for those in rural Uganda, Owana says he used to smoke an average of 10 cigarettes, the same figure Sabiti quotes.
“It started off with one cigarette to almost 10 sticks a day. I would light a cigarette after every activity such as after a meal,” Sabiti narrates.
The report says currently most smokers are between 25 and 40 years but most of them started smoking before they were 20.
Tobacco Free Kids, a global organisation that fights to reduce tobacco use among children and adults, observes that Uganda currently lacks a comprehensive tobacco control law, making it an easy target for tobacco companies.
The Global Adult Tobacco Survey – Uganda shows that most smokers in Uganda want to quit but they are trapped by addiction. This results into World Health Organisation (WHO) figures indicating that 13,500 Ugandans die every year due to tobacco related illnesses. Seventy five per cent of all patients with oral cancers reported in Mulago Main Referral Hospital in 2008 had a history of tobacco smoking.
In 2004, Owana fell ill and was on the verge of death owing to cigarette smoking. He had developed tuberculosis but to his admission continued living in denial. When his health worsened, he was admitted at Mulago Hospital where it was discovered that he had pneumonia as well.
At the time, he was a heavy smoker and took alcohol in equal measure.
“Dr Myers Lugemwa, a personal friend, urged me to stop smoking and to reduce my alcohol intake. The general impression was that I was supposed to be dead. Cigarettes are addictive and give you a feel good sensation but can lead to your death,” Owana, who has since quit smoking, warns.
Sabiti admits to buying a pack of cigarettes every two days for four years. And this is because he shared cigarettes with friends and fellow smokers. A standard pack of cigarettes contains 20 cigarettes.
A package of local cigarette brands, for example Sportsman and Safari costs Shs3,000 while brands such as Rex and Dunhill cost Shs7,000.
According to the Heath Care Cost of Tobacco Use in Uganda, a total of Shs328.8b was spent on health care, morbidity and mortality in 2013.
“The cost of tobacco use constitutes 0.5 per cent of GDP, while expenditure on treating tobacco-induced illness was two per cent of the national health expenditure in 2013. This means for every one shilling government earns from tobacco, it spends four shillings on treating tobacco-related illness,” the report reads in part.
Owana and Sabiti are no longer part of the statistics captured as cigarette smokers. After undergoing treatment, Owana quit smoking and also rethought his spirituality. Sabiti made his smoking habit a secret from family. He particularly hid it from his son.
“After quitting, my friends, especially the girls, were happy. A workmate also quit smoking a few months after I did. Till today, most people I interact with do not believe that I actually quit,” the radio presenter says.
Nonetheless, quitting was not easy since it had become part of his lifestyle. When he did, there were other changes in his life. “I used to shiver in the first days, especially in the morning and after eating. I felt very unsettled and would often sweat. It took me two months to get back in line,” Sabiti reveals.
After quitting, Owana sat down to calculate how much he had smoked and was shocked by the numbers. “It amounted to 80 kilometres. If I arranged the cigarettes, they would be layered from Uganda’s Central Business District- Kampala all the way to Iganga in Eastern Uganda,” he jokes.
Owana aims to reduce the number of smokers. He plans to take his campaign to post-primary schools and institutions where the temptation to start smoking is highest.
“I want my story to touch someone. I do not want to go and preach to smokers that it is evil to smoke. I would like to share and talk to them about the dangers of smoking. I am currently working on a 25-minute documentary on cigarette smoking, which I would like to circulate widely for people to watch,” Owana discloses part of his plans to sensitise the masses on the dangers of smoking.
In Uganda, according to GAT findings, the five most purchased brands of manufactured cigarettes were Supermatch (44.1 per cent), Sportsman (37.7 per cent), Safari (13.0 per cent), Sweet Menthol (3.6 per cent), and Rex (1.0 per cent).
On average, a current cigarette smoker in Uganda spends Shs20,730 per month on cigarettes. The average cost of 2,000 cigarettes in 100 packs as a percentage of per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP)  was 16.4 per cent.