‘Vaginal tobacco’, a risky cocktail for West African women

Tabac vaginal 2
The use of "vaginal tobacco" is common in Senegal, albeit conducted with total discretion. Copyright: SDN / FK Djamessi

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  • Women are applying tobacco powder to their genitals to increase sexual pleasure
  • The practice carries multiple health risks including cancerous lesions, medics say
  • Experts warn against using the product pending research on its effects

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[SEDHIOU, SENEGAL] “I told an aunt about my difficulty getting pregnant and she recommended this product. After using it I was able to have a child. […] Even the doctors were surprised,” says Neyba, a Senegalese woman of at least 50 years old.

Speaking in the privacy of her home in Sédhiou, in the southern region of Casamance, Neyba says she is convinced that she owes her “miracle” to a tobacco powder that she regularly applies to her genitals.

The product, sold at 100 CFA francs (17 US cents) for a sachet weighing a few grams, is applied either to the skin or the vagina to treat infections or pains, or simply to give pleasure. But it is the aphrodisiac qualities attributed to this “vaginal tobacco” that seem to be the main attraction for consumers in Sédhiou.

In Dakar, the “miracle recipe” for “increasing sexual pleasure tenfold” or “sending your man into seventh heaven” is shared happily between women, notes Abdoulaye Diop, a gynaecologist-obstetrician in the Senegalese capital. But its sale in the Muslim country is clandestine — so clandestine that sellers and consumers use code names to carry out the transaction. “Jumbo” and “Secret” are two of the names used for the product, the components of which differ from one seller to another.

Gnima Ndiaye, a reproductive health coordinator in Sédhiou district, says the product is made from dried tobacco leaves and the roots of a tree called “tangora” or native plants such as “kankouran mano” or “koundinding”.

According to Ndiaye, some manufacturers add soda and shea butter to the product, which users — recruited from all age groups — purchase in Kandiénou village, on the border with Guinea-Bissau.

The practice also exists elsewhere in Africa. Pascal Foumane, professor of gynaecology-obstetrics at the University of Yaoundé I, says women in Cameroon use tobacco, as well as a type of white stone, the bark of plants, or cannabis, in the hope of shrinking their genitals to increase sexual pleasure.

‘Placebo effect’

But researchers, doctors and other experts in female reproductive systems with experience of treating patients engaged in the practice are clear that the women’s efforts are fruitless. On the therapeutic properties of “vaginal tobacco”, pulmonologist Omar Ba is unequivocal: “There are none.” Ba, who is responsible for Senegal’s tobacco control programme, says this form of tobacco use, well known within his services, has only a “placebo effect” on users.

Abdoulaye Diop, a gynaecologist-obstetrician in Dakar, believes the product could be giving users the sensation that their genitals are shrinking, due to the reflex retraction of the vaginal muscles when in contact with its chemical components. “However, this feeling is transient and misleading, because the vaginal mucosa that is attacked will eventually develop changes that are the gateway to cancer,” he says..

Burning sensations, vaginal lesions

Foumane adds: “These products often create ulcers which, by scarring, shrink the vagina, make it hard and can go so far as to close it completely. It can even make the normal flow of menstruation impossible.”

Many of the women who have used the product also say they felt burning sensations followed by severe dizziness, vomiting and even loss of consciousness.

“I feel heartache and unbearable pain every time I apply the product. But once the effect has passed, I feel really good,” says Neyba.

Ndiaye affirms that there are countless cases of women admitted to the emergency room in her locality after losing consciousness following the use of “vaginal tobacco”. The majority of these patients, she says, seek medical attention for inflammation of the cervix or vagina, or recurrent sexually transmitted infections.

The health worker said she once saw a 36-year-old woman who had a stage-3 cervical neoplasm [cancer] which is “very rare for someone of her age”. “The same year, I received a 25-year-old girl who had vaginal lesions and who bled on contact with the speculum [a medical tool used for vaginal examinations]. In both cases, they said they used tobacco,” added the practitioner.


‘Fatal’ birthing complications

Aminata Seck, a midwife stationed in Sédhiou, says that she has seen complications during childbirth due to this use of tobacco. “They had too great an increase in the rate of uterine contractions, which sometimes caused a decrease in oxygenation in the fetus, resulting in stillbirth or, in other cases, neonatal death,” she explains.

These anecdotes would seem to marry with the findings of a study on the impact of smoking on female genitals, published in January 2018 in the British journal Scientific Reports. The study found that smoking changes vaginal flora and that these changes put women who smoke at a high risk of vaginal infections.

“These risks should be higher in women who put tobacco directly in contact with their vaginal and cervical mucosa,” deduces Diop. “This area is very sensitive and attacking it with a product made of tobacco and soda is completely suicidal.”

This opinion is shared by Foumane, who believes that the link between tobacco use and cervical cancer is quite plausible. “Tobacco is indeed a well-documented carcinogen,” the gynaecology expert says. “The risk of cervical cancer seems to us all the more increased in the case of the administration of tobacco in direct contact with the cervix.”

Scientific evidence lacking

Ndiaye admits that no scientific studies have yet established a correlation between vaginal tobacco and cases of cancerous lesions or childbirth complications but she believes there is “certainly a connection”.“It is a practice that we are currently documenting seriously,” adds Ba of the Senegalese tobacco control programme. “At the moment, we don't have enough information on its real effects.”

Yéri Camara, chief medical officer of the Sédhiou region, believes that the most important thing to do now is to carry out a study on the chemical composition of “vaginal tobacco”. Gynaecologist-obstetrician Diop agrees, adding that an in-depth study and extensive documentation of cases of women affected by the practice could serve as a powerful deterrent.

In the meantime, all the experts agree on one thing: the need to educate women so that they stop using the concoction, with its multitude of repercussions.

This article was originally produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa French edition and edited for clarity.