Will the new government deliver the long promised Comprehensive Tobacco Control Law to save the public from the evident ravaging non-communicable diseases? Asks Bontle Mbongwe, ATN executive director
Three Health and Wellness Ministers have come and gone from 2011 to date, all promising citizens a law that will protect them from toxic tobacco smoke, easily accessible tobacco products and deceptive tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship by the tobacco industry.
To date the law has not seen the light of day. This is despite the recent launch of the non-communicable diseases strategy, by President Mokgweetsi Masisi, who is also the Founding Patron of the Anti Tobacco Network.
The big question is, will the new executive and the legislators, all sworn in last week deliver this long pending law?
In a recent interview with Gabz FM, the executive director of the Anti Tobacco Network (ATN), Dr. Bontle Mbongwe, expressed her fears that the delay could be a result of underground lobbying by the tobacco industry.
Mbongwe’s fears were fuelled by the fact that in July 2017, at a national conference organised by ATN and other partners, attended by local and international experts from Africa, the then Minister of Health and Wellness Dorcas Makgato informed the conference that she will be tabling a comprehensive tobacco control Bill at a Cabinet meeting in preparation for its submission for debate at the 2017 July Parliamentary session.
Since then, the Bill never made it to Parliament and no other logical explanation can be given except a strong suspicion that the tobacco industry had covertly successfully influenced, if not captured some in the Executive and was engaged in lobbying legislators to turn a blind eye to the need to put measures to curb the public health harm of tobacco.
Even though Botswana is party to the global FCTC, a framework that prohibits partnerships and sponsorship with the tobacco industry, the Government of Botswana has previously partnered with British American Tobacco Botswana (BATB, Japan Tobacco Inc.(JTI) and the Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa (TISA).
It has always been the concern of ATN that such partnerships will result with delays or non action on public health policy as appears to be happening now.
These companies aggressively target departments of finance, commerce and trade to achieve policy influence.
They further use donations and awards to obtain endorsement from senior officials. It is public knowledge that these companies have regular meetings with these sectors in Botswana.
The ATN chief expressed hope on the new Masisi Government with its public commitment to fighting corruption in all its forms.
She further hoped the new government will fast-track the long delayed law and become a more transparent government that is open about its dealings with the tobacco industry, including recording interactions and political donations in accordance with the requirements of the WHO FCTC that Botswana is party to.
A recent 2019 Report on US Tobacco Industry Interference Index, has shown that many countries have banned political contributions and gifts from the tobacco industry.
These include Brazil, Canada, France, Iran, Myanmar,Turkey, Uganda and Uruguay. Transparency on political contributions is required in countries such as Kenya and the US.
The repercussions of a delayed tobacco control law are already showing by the increasing use of electronic cigarettes and other heated tobacco products such as hubbly bubbly.
“There is growing evidence of the industry using harm-reduction claims about e-cigarettes to justify interactions with government officials and open the door to new products,” says 2019 US Tobacco Industry Interference Index Report.
The report cites examples of the United States, Philippine,Mexico, Lebanon andTurkey where tobacco companies have lobbied in 2018, to make it easier for them to sell or promote e-cigarettes.
The ATN CEO has called upon the new government to prioritise tobacco control and fulfil the government’s promise to protect all citizens from the harms of tobacco.
In her statement with Gabz FM she has stressed her conviction that the proposed law, which has been in draft form for almost 10 years, will once promulgated, go a long way in addressing the growing cases of NCDs, which are currently a major health problem in Botswana.
*Imi Mokgethi is communications manager, Anti Tobacco Network, Gaborone, Botswana.