Ending public smoking

Tobacco smoke clings to hair, clothing, carpets, curtains, even furniture; it lingers in a room like an unwanted guest long after its host, the smoker, extinguishes the offending cigarette or cigar and stays after the host leaves. It is that intrusive.

It is just as invasive with the human body. Not content to leave its foul odour on hair, skin and breath, it stains teeth, burns eyes and damages the respiratory system of smokers and deposits cancer-causing carcinogens in otherwise healthy bodies of non-smokers.

Apart from respiratory illnesses and cancer, smoking, especially of cigarettes, amps up persons’ risk for having cataracts and suffering strokes and coronary heart disease. It is also increases the likelihood of dying from a number of illnesses. In short, smoking kills, but it is rarely ever a quick death. Instead, smokers and non-smokers who are exposed to second-hand and third-hand smoke, develop illnesses that result in a loss of man hours and place a strain on the healthcare system and on families.

None of this is new information and neither is any of it false, hearsay or anecdotal. Significant sums of money have been spent on research and studies have confirmed all of the above as well as several other health risks linked to smoking. Yet, people still smoke. The question is why and the answer is that tobacco and all of its by-products as well as the additives used in making them are perfectly legal and people have free will to make their own choices, good or bad.

But wait, there’s more. It has been proven, again by way of research and studies, that in many cases people have lit that first addictive stick after being bombarded with advertisements that make smoking look cool. Not so long ago, it was impossible to pick up a magazine or newspaper or turn on the television without seeing cigarette advertisements that featured attractive, affluent-looking, mainly young people, who it appeared, were the life of the party or the centre of attention because they smoked a particular brand. Who wouldn’t want to be like that?

Tobacco companies also poured millions of dollars into sport sponsorships in exchange for having the name of the company and its brands plastered across banners at events or emblazoned on sportsmen/women’s attire, targeting the millions of fans associated with those sports personalities. For a while, it worked and tobacco conglomerates raked in billions of dollars in profits.

But as people fell ill and research proved that smoking was causing, contributing to or prolonging diseases, governments stepped in — in the developed countries that is – and began placing restrictions on these businesses and their products. As the limits to what they could do to sell their products in the developed world, including lobbying, rose, so did their focus shift more to developing countries, including Guyana.

Tobacco control legislation has been needed here for a very long time. In fact, Guyana, under the PPP administration, had hitched its wagon to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) push for a tobacco-free world, but only in a very lukewarm way.

The WHO launched its Tobacco Free Initiative in 1998. It later established six tobacco control policies, which called on governments to expand the fight against the tobacco epidemic, by monitoring tobacco use and prevention policies; protect people from tobacco smoke; offer help to quit tobacco use; warn about the dangers of tobacco; enforce bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and raise taxes on tobacco.

In 2005, Guyana finally acceded to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and by 2008 government had managed to huff and puff its way to the promotion of smoke-free government buildings and schools and to begin enforcing the use of written warnings on cigarette packages and advertisements. Even though at the time, the then health minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy pontificated long and in-depth about the dangers of smoking and the horrible statistics pertaining to this country, he and the government seemed hesitant about going all the way and introducing anti-smoking legislation.

Therefore, the passage of the Tobacco Control Bill 2017 by the current administration has to be applauded. Furthermore, the Demerara Tobacco Company Limited’s (Demtoco) call to send to the Bill to a Joint Select Committee of the National Assembly, where some of the “contentious issues” can be more robustly reviewed, otherwise known as a delaying tactic, must be seen for what it is and ignored. Demtoco Managing Director Maurlain Kirton’s concern that the Bill, “in many clauses infringes on the rights of ordinary citizens and discriminates against many who are seeking to earn their livelihood from the trading of a legal product,” ignores the rights of the rest of the populace, a significantly larger group, to a smoke-free environment. In fact, it drives home the point that the concerns seem to be more related to the company’s bottom line.

It is a shame that a PPP member voted against the passage of the Bill, while the rest of his peers on that side of the House abstained. Whatever flaws they claim the Bill has, the ban on public smoking is a huge step forward, and anyone interested in the health of the nation should therefore feel compelled to support the Bill.

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