The Economics of Tobacco Control Project (ETCP), which has been housed in SALDRU since its inception in 2011, will soon become an independent URC-accredited research unit in the School of Economics. From the very outset, the aim was to be an independent research unit, and the growth in the ETCP in the past years means that the chords with SALDRU will soon be officially broken. ETCP thanks SALDRU, and especially Prof. Murray Leibbrandt, for believing in them, for critical administrative and financial support in the early years, and for supporting ETCP’s progress in becoming a standalone research unit.
The name of the new unit is Research in the Economics of Excisable Products (REEP) and will be led by Corné van Walbeek as the Director and Hana Ross as the Deputy Director.
The ETCP was first funded by the American Cancer Society, and shortly thereafter, was supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The aim of the project was to build capacity in the economics of tobacco control, by providing scholarships to postgraduate students, and through workshops to African researchers and policymakers. At the outset the ETCP consisted of a Principal Investigator, a researcher, two postgraduate students and a part-time administrator.
After its modest start in 2011, the ETCP has grown consistently. Additional grant funding from various international organisations enabled the ETCP to our staff complement and expand our research focus. Currently, the ETCP consists of eight researchers, four postdoctoral fellows, and three administrative staff members. It also employs about 30-40 ad hoc fieldworkers from ten African countries who collect prices of tobacco products in their home towns during the July and December/January holidays.
Why the interest in tobacco? Globally, tobacco use kills about 7 million people a year. This is more than tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria combined. Regular users have a 50% probability of dying prematurely from tobacco use. The global direct cost (mainly hospitalisation and medical costs) and indirect costs (mainly forgone earnings) from tobacco use have been estimated at 1.4 trillion USD per year, or 1.8% of global GDP.
Despite the addictiveness of tobacco, a substantial literature has shown that the single most effective intervention to reduce usage is an increase in the price of tobacco products. By increasing the excise tax on cigarettes, governments have been able to increase their retail price, making them less affordable. The ETCP has contributed to this literature by looking at aspects like estimating the price elasticity of demand for cigarettes (on aggregate and for different demographic and socio-economic groups), and the degree to which excise taxes have been passed through to retail prices. More recently, much of the research has focused on estimating the size of and trends in the illicit market in South Africa, which has grown dramatically since 2015.
In 2015, the National Department of Health nominated the ETCP to become a Knowledge Hub for the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The FCTC is the world’s first public health treaty, which has been effective since 2005. The Knowledge Hub, which was launched in March 2018, is focused on tobacco taxation and illicit trade.
Whereas the focus of the ETCP initially was on sub-Saharan Africa, the creation of the Knowledge Hub has given the ETCP an international reach. Members of the ETCP have consulted for government officials and policymakers in Chad, the Czech Republic, the Gambia, Georgia, Ghana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritius, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Vanuatu and Vietnam.
Over time, members of the ETCP have diversified their research interests to other excisable products, such as alcohol, sugar-sweetened beverages, and even cannabis.
By choosing a “flexible” name, REEP is set up to expand its research interests to all excisable products, not just tobacco. The new research unit will keep ETCP’s tagline “supporting public heath through rigorous and objective research”. ETCP has made an impact in the past, and wants to build on that going forward.