Parliament should raise the tobacco tax

Dear Editor,

Russia where almost half of the population smokes is considering banning tobacco. Between 2001 and now, I have been urging a global ban of tobacco by 2040. In the meantime, we need to introduce a Tobacco Control law in Guyana. We need to also increase tobacco taxation. The government has unreasonably increased more than 200 taxes in 2016 and 2017 but inexplicably ignored tobacco.

In May 2001, as Guyana’s Minister of Health, I committed to bringing a Tobacco Control Bill to Parliament. After much consultation and technical support to draft the Tobacco Bill, I was ready to introduce the Bill in 2009. The then Cabinet and President, Bharrat Jagdeo, took into consideration the urgings of the Private Sector Commission which thought that excluding the tobacco companies from consultations was unfair. It is true that the tobacco companies were excluded from the intense and comprehensive consultations. But that was because the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) which Guyana was a signatory to prohibits consultations with tobacco companies. The FCTC was the first and still only global health treaty ever. Guyana was an early signatory and 2016 marked our 10th anniversary since becoming a party to the FCTC.

To satisfy the Cabinet and the private sector, we started another round of consultations. I explained to the private sector that I could not invite the tobacco companies. The private sector invited the General Manager of Demtoco to lead the private sector team to the consultations. In 2011, I prepared again to introduce the Bill, but Parliament was dissolved for elections. By 2012, I was shifted to the Ministry of Agriculture and the new Health Minister decided to resume consultations. By the time he was ready to bring the Bill to Parliament, the Parliament was prorogued and subsequently dissolved for the 2015 elections. I am re-publishing the Bill which I had first published for public consultation in 2009 and which was ready for the second time to be introduced in 2012.

I heard more than a dozen times that Ministers Norton and Cummings would be introducing the Bill at the “next meeting of Parliament”. But each time the sitting comes and goes and nothing happens. This is a bipartisan issue. It affects all Guyanese, those who smoke and those who do not. I am again appealing to the Minister of Health to bring the Bill to Parliament and send it to a Special Select Committee. Let Parliament invite the public to make presentations. In the end, let Guyana have a Tobacco Control Bill. We have been dithering for too long. While we dither, more people are exposed and get sick.

I urge the Parliament to raise the tobacco tax. It is unconscionable that the government has introduced or increased more than 200 new taxes, but did not touch tobacco. This is reprehensible. Since 2001, I am on record in calling for higher tobacco taxes in Guyana and around the world. In fact, I am on record calling for a global minimum tax on tobacco, a minimum tax that applies to all countries. When I called for a minimum tax, it did not mean a low tax, it meant a high tax that represented the lowest ceiling that any country could have.

Tobacco is the world’s greatest extra-judicial killer. Last year over 6 million people died because of tobacco, more than 600,000 from second-hand smoke. It is expected that by 2025, the annual death rate related to tobacco would increase to more than 10 million. We agreed as the world to do something about stopping tobacco when we brought into force the first global health treaty ‒ the FCTC. But we are far from doing enough to stop Big Tobacco. The time is now for a high global tobacco tax. This is a step towards banning tobacco by 2040, as I had called for in 2001 when I was Minister of Health.

The United Nations has agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for a better world by 2030. With the SDGs, there is specific recognition of the importance of the NCDs. This is encouraging. There is also recognition that tobacco is a killer and globally we need collective action to reduce and eliminate the negative impacts of tobacco. As a Minister of Health between 2001 and 2012, I had emphasized the significance of global action against tobacco. I was an ardent supporter of the FCTC. But I had gone further in calling for a banning of tobacco by 2040.

Now that the SDG has embraced the goals of the FCTC, it is time we were more robust in our action to stop Big Tobacco. In this regard, we must strictly enforce our agreements in the FCTC to increase taxes on tobacco. Research has shown clearly that increased taxes do reduce tobacco use. We must join in a global collective action to increase tobacco taxes. We need a global minimum tax on tobacco. This way we can guarantee that there are high tobacco taxes everywhere. While leaving individual countries to make a decision on how high to go, we must set a high minimum tax to ensure that for those countries that are hesitant to increase tobacco taxes, they have no choice.

I am hopeful that my earlier call to ban tobacco by 2040 will become a global initiative.

Yours faithfully,

Leslie Ramsammy

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