Tobacco is an umbrella name given to over 70 species of plants in the genus nicotiana and the family Solanaceae. It is used to refer to the cured leaves of these plants. The active ingredients in tobacco are nicotine and harmine, a beta-carboline and a harmala alkaloid that occurs in several different plants. The nicotine component in tobacco makes it addictive to its users.
While a lot of people know that tobacco leaves are mainly smoked in cigarettes, cigars, shisha, chewed or taken as snuff, little is known about tobacco as a sexual stimulant in Africa. Of particular interest is vaginal tobacco, the practice of using tobacco leaves on the vagina, with unproven claims that it improves sensation during intimacy, increases fertility, and tightens the vagina.
There are reports of wide use of tobacco for this purpose by women in the Gambia and Senegal.
Some groups in Nigeria are already raising the alarm on this trend and the likelihood it may come down to the country. One of them is the Nigeria Tobacco Control Alliance (NTCA) which organised a focus group discussion with women and young girls in Abuja to find out if they were familiar with the practice and what influences it.
The outcomes were disturbing as a reasonable number confirmed that in northern Nigeria, women of marriage age use tobacco/cigarette smoke with hopes of tightening their vagina. They also revealed that women of marriageable age who engage in the practice collect cigarettes, especially cigarette butts and place them in native clay pot, burn them and squat on it so that the smoke will go into the vagina with the hope of tightening the vagina.
While the use of vaginal tobacco is not widespread in Nigeria, it is believed that the practice is gaining ground in northern Nigeria where women who are about to marry, but are no longer virgins use several mixtures collectively called kayamata, to tighten their vagina. In some parts of the north, it is part of marriage preparation rituals.
However, medical research shows that inserting anything in the vagina increases the risk of vaginal infection. For those using tobacco for tightening, there is a high risk of systemic absorption of the chemical constituents of tobacco into the blood stream causing damage to other parts of the body. Exposing the genitals to tobacco smoke may also cause ectopic pregnancies and negatively impact fertility.
Sadly, most women who use tobacco for this practice know little about what the world’s leading organisation on health, the World Health Organisation says about tobacco as a product. According to the WHO, tobacco in all its forms and use is harmful, and there is no safe level of exposure to it. Cigarette filters contain thousands of cellulose acetate fiber. This microplastics, when burned, release poisonous smoke that is harmful when inhaled or absorbed into the body.
In exposing the dangers of the practice, recently in the Gambia, the Minister of Health, Dr. Ahmadou Samateh, narrated the disturbing case of a young woman who after using vaginal tobacco, developed infection with worms discharging from her vagina. Such dangerous fallouts from the use of tobacco for vaginal tightening and other uses, makes it imperative for the public health community in Nigeria to begin awareness on this new front of the tobacco menace that may soon find its way into our communities.
If the Nigerian government is serious about bringing the lessons of the International Women Day theme: Breaking the Bias to life, then this is one area it must be concerned about break. It must also address inequalities and other prejudices that trigger women to engage in such self-destructive practices.
By Paul Ashibel, Nigeria Tobacco Control Alliance