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Inside the murky world of Nairobi’s smoking zones

The Kenyan government has cracked down on cigarettes with a ban on advertising and smoking in public, driving the habit into the shadows

There is a wooden shed in the middle of Nairobi city centre, dark, full of fumes, crowded and deliberately built beside the public toilets. It feels like a place of shame.

Jairus Masumba, Nairobi County’s deputy director of public health, calls it in jest the gazebo. It’s the public smoking place, created by his department. It is claustrophobic and filled with smoke, some of which drifts out through slats, but most of which hangs heavily in the fugged air inside.

Those who enter have to be desperate – and they’re usually men. A 27-year-old woman, who comes from the south of Kenya, is a rarity. She is heavily made-up and stands in the doorway. She smokes seven to 10 cigarettes a day. “It’s bad for you, no?” she says several times, though she knows the answer.

The men inside, barely visible as you enter because of the darkness and the fug, are smoking hard, standing up like a football crowd, all facing the same way though there is nothing to look at except the wooden slats of the far side of the shed. Music blares but nobody is dancing. They are grim faced, doing what they have to do. A young man, high probably on khat and cigarette in hand, chases some of the butts and the ash out with a broom, seeking money from the other smokers for cleaning up. He says he has a diploma in business marketing and another diploma in substance abuse counselling.

At the door are two cigarette sellers, doing a busy trade. It’s rare for anyone to buy whole packets. Packs of cigarettes in Kenya are broken up and sold by vendors as single sticks. That makes them cheap for women, children and the poor, despite manufacturers being banned from producing packets of less than 10. One of the two sellers sitting passively inhaling smoke is a woman who taps a packet of 20 and shakes them deftly out, one at a time, exchanging them for small coins. Men buy one, sometimes a couple, sometimes three. They will not all be smoked here. The sellers sit at the large red wooden boxes, with open lids that become the display cabinet. Most popular and cheapest is Sportsman at 100 shillings a pack (75p, 97 cents) or 5 shillings (less than 4p, 5 cents) for a single. Smokers buy sweets too, to take away the smell of tobacco when the worker goes back to the office.

The shed is vile, but few dare smoke even on the pavement outside in the cleaner air in the knowledge that the plain clothed official public health enforcers will be circling, ready to impose fines on anyone they catch. Nairobi city has got tough on smoking. The Kenyan government has banned advertising and marketing and smoking in public places, but it is up to the individual counties to interpret and enforce that and they all do it differently. Nairobi County has cracked down hard. Lighting up on the open street in the city centre can result in a stiff fine of 50,000 shillings (£374, $485) or even arrest. But it’s not so everywhere, or even outside of the city centre.


Yusef, 58 and from Kenya’s second city, Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean coast, says people smoke openly in Mombasa. He has been smoking since the 1970s. His 28-year-old daughter died recently from colon cancer. That gives him a different perspective. “I’m more worried about GM foods,” he says.

Nairobi’s Uhuru Park is just under the nose of the ministry of health and has two small designated open-air smoking areas. On a Saturday, young women who are not smoking are there laughing and chatting with the young men who are. It’s somewhere to hang out. Elsewhere in the park, the same snack stalls proliferate. After 5pm, when the official public health enforcement officers go home, vendors and smokers relax. Cigarettes are sold and smoked openly.

Outside of the city centre, the restrictions do not appear to be enforced at all. In the High Ridge residential area, a predominantly Indian community, stall holders are grilling corn and frying cassava crisps on the street. Others run the small stalls selling sweets, biscuits, fizzy drinks and cigarettes, openly smoking themselves. People wander along the road with a cigarette between their fingers. A large lorry stops and a man jumps down to buy two sticks, lighting both and passing one to his fellow labourer before they unload.

These stalls are common near schools. A recent report compiled by the Consumer Information Network, a campaigning Kenyan anti-tobacco organisation, with Johns Hopkins University in the US, found such stalls selling sweets and single cigarettes within yards of primary schools across the country.

You won’t see an advert for Dunhill or Rothmans in Kenya. At least, nothing that looks like an advert. Advertising and promoting cigarettes has been banned. But everybody knows what the large red wooden boxes and red wooden display trays at stalls at the side of roads contain. Red is the colour of British American Tobacco (BAT). The words have been stripped off the red umbrellas that protect street vendors from the sun or patched over, but the colour is a tacit reminder of what they used to say and what is still sold there.

BAT said its products were for adult smokers only and that it would much prefer that stalls sold whole packets rather than single sticks, “given our investment in the brands and the fact there are clear health warnings on the packs.

“Across the world, we have very strict rules regarding not selling our products to retailers located near schools. BAT Kenya provides support to many of these independent vendors, including providing stalls painted in non-corporate colours, and providing youth smoking prevention and health warnings messages. We also educate vendors to ensure they do not sell tobacco products near schools.

“We are a company that takes its responsibilities very seriously, and we are naturally keen to look further into any instances that are brought to our attention, so we can take action if necessary.”

Pictures and video by David Levene. Multimedia editing by Ekaterina Ochagavia.

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