Local NGO hails anti-tobacco legal fund

An NGO that seeks to control and reduce tobacco use in Botswana, has applauded the introduction of an Anti-Tobacco Trade Litigation Fund by international billionaire philanthropists, Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates.

Interim executive director of Anti-Tobacco Network (ATN), Dr Bontle Mbongwe said the launch of the joint fund last week is timely because Botswana is about to complete the formulation of a comprehensive law that is compliant with the provisions of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

The fund is meant to combat the tobacco industry’s use of international trade agreements to threaten and prevent countries from passing strong tobacco-control laws. “The initiative couldn’t have come at a better time as the tobacco industry is capitalising on international trade agreements to slow health gains made by countries,” Mbongwe said. She stated that when Botswana introduced the 30 percent tobacco levy in line with the provisions of the FCTC, it was publicly condemned by the South African-based Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa (TISA). She said the company claimed that “the levy goes against the spirit of the SACU agreement as it eradicates trade harmonisation and hampers the free flow of goods within the SACU community”.

Mbongwe said TISA added that the levy seems to impose a larger burden on importers than local manufacturers, which is in contravention of the SACU agreement.  She said such condemnations are a clear indication that should Botswana introduce stronger tobacco legislation, it will be subjected to harassment and intimidation by the tobacco industry. “The fund is therefore timely for Botswana and many other developing nations,” Mbongwe said.  “ATN is further pleased that in addition to supporting countries facing suit before international trade tribunals, the Anti-Tobacco Trade Litigation Fund will cover technical assistance in legislative drafting and documentation to avoid legal challenges and potential trade disputes from the passage of tobacco-control laws, support of global best practices in tobacco control and coordinated efforts to document industry wrongdoing, Litigation support to low- and middle-income countries to help defend laws in the form of financial support among others,” Mbongwe said.

Launching the fund last Wednesday, the philanthropists said the event came at a time when the tobacco industry has ramped up its use of international trade agreements to slow health gains made by countries. “We are at a critical moment in the global effort to reduce tobacco use, because the significant gains we have seen are at risk of being undermined by the tobacco industry’s use of trade agreements and litigation,” said Bloomberg. “We will stand with nations as they work to protect their populations against the deadly health effects of tobacco use.”

“Country leaders who are trying to protect their citizens from the harms of tobacco should not be deterred by threats of costly legal challenges from huge tobacco companies,” said Gates. “Australia won its first case, which sends a strong message. But smaller, developing countries don’t have the same resources.”

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