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We Need A Tobacco Control Law
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Opinions of Thursday, 21 January 2010

Columnist: Kingson, Jeorge Wilson

We Need A Tobacco Control Law

The United Nations Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is the first international public health treaty negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization(WHO).It aims at protecting present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke. Ghana ratified the convention in 2004, but very little has actually been done to ensure that provisions in the convention are heeded to. JEORGE WILSON KINGSON is a member of the Media Alliance on Tobacco Control (MATCO). He accesses the tobacco control situation in Ghana and shares some advocacy thoughts.

Imagine you are a junior rank officer in your office minding your business; your boss summons you into his office and engages you in a long conversation relating to your performance. Now, it is not the long conversation that sucks but all through the talks he keeps releasing thick smokes of cigarette into the atmosphere, worse of it all, the office which measures about 7x7 in size has the air condition turned on high. Mind you, you are a non-smoker.

Also imagine the situation where your office colleague who is a chain smoker chooses no where else but the office to smoke his cigarette because the motivation from the “stick” makes him work hard and better. He must deliver the job right and on time and irrespective of who is around or whose life he is endangering he must get his motivation from his cigarette to deliver. Well, the above examples are some of the sanctions and ordeals that some people have to be enduring at their work places almost on daily basis yet they cannot complain because they have to keep their job. Thousands are those who do not smoke but are forced to inhale the smoke released into the atmosphere by those around hem.

But for how long must these human right abuses against our fellow human beings continue. The truth is that the structures are not there for an individual to pick up this fight against tobacco use in any part of the country. In fact, few people know that second hand smoking have been certified as more dangerous to our health than active smoking. The reason being that the inhaled smoke that the smoker puffs out comes with some impurities that may be hiding in the smoker and these when inhaled by the non-smoker comes with dire consequences.

Sadly enough, the number of people who smoke in Ghana keeps increasing by the day, yet effort by government to intensify awareness on this keep dwindling. This can be blamed mainly on the absence of legislation. A tobacco usage bill which was started several years ago is still at its formation stages, even though the ministry of health which is championing it keeps assuring that they are working on it.

The 31st of May every year has been set aside by the United Nations for the international celebration of World no Tobacco day. This yearly celebration is suppose to inform the public on the dangers of using tobacco, the business practices of tobacco companies, and also to remind them of What the World Health Organization (WHO) is doing to fight the tobacco epidemic and what people around the globe can do to claim their right to health and healthy leaving and protect future generations.

Countries such as Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia have all capitalized on this annual celebration and have succeeded in banning smoking in all public places. An indication of how some countries are committed to protecting the health of their citizens. The story of how Ghana celebrates its version of this beautiful day is more of an apology. Our celebrations barely move beyond our noses.

The dangers of smoking cannot be over emphasized and all hands must come on deck to ensure that the fight is carried on to its logical conclusion so as to protect the precious lives of non-smokers and future generations. A cursory look at the worldwide statistics on smoking is alarming enough to halt the wheels of any over speeding train. According to the WHO at least one person dies every eight seconds due to tobacco related diseases. In developed countries where smoking prevalence started 10 to 20 years earlier than developing countries nearly 60 million deaths have been attributed to smoking and lung diseases. About 13,400 people die each day and 560 people die each hour globally.

The WHO states that more than five million people die from tobacco related causes, more than HIV/AIDS, Malaria and tuberculosis combined. Additionally, over 600 studies undertaken by experts link passive smoking to ill health and conclude that passive smoking or the inhalation of tobacco smoke by non smokers increases the risk of lung cancer, heart diseases and respiratory disease. It has also been established rather frighteningly that about 10 million lives will be lost by the year 2030 due to tobacco use. About seven million out of this figure is expected to come from developing countries including Ghana where tobacco companies are reported to have shifted their attention to due to the intensity of the war against them in the developed countries.

A study carried out recently in some hotels, restaurants, night clubs and other entertainment centers around the country revealed that there are high levels of measurement of nicotine above the acceptable international levels.

Smoking or tobacco use has very harmful effects on children and pregnant women. Studies have shown that children who are exposed to a smoking environment are more prone to developing bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, middle ear infection and glue ear. Passive smoking by pregnant women can result in babies being born with low weight. The risks of spontaneous abortion and sudden infant death syndrome, premature and stillbirths are very high.

As a signatory to the FCTC Ghana needs to show more commitment to the fight on tobacco by strengthening efforts to ensure that the necessary awareness are created to alert the citizens. Civil society organizations such as Vision for Alternative Development (VALD) and the Media Alliance on Tobacco Control (MATCO) must be lauded for their efforts so far in demanding from government of a tobacco control bill.

The two groups recently collaborated to put together a training workshop for their members with the aim of equipping them for a more intensive advocacy on the need for a tobacco control law. So far the fight has attained some success. The Ministry of Health (MOH) has been able to successfully ban smoking in public transport and in major hotels where non smokers can patronize. The Ministry has organized workshops with owners and managers of hospitality and entertainment centers on smoking and this has resulted in customers enjoying a smoke free environment. Some members of the public have pledged their support for the campaign too.

But clearly these are not enough to reduce tobacco use in the country to the expected level. More needs to be done and can be done to accelerate the process and this includes a law to ban outright public smoking. Ratifying the FCTC as Ghana has done is a step in the right direction but not the ultimate thing to give Ghanaian citizens total protection from the harmful effects of tobacco. Innocent lives must be saved and the time to act is now. A tobacco control law for Ghana will enable the FCTC to be activated in member countries. For those who think too much noise is being made about tobacco, this is why it is deadly and why government must be serious with it. Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, more than fifty known or suspected carcinogens and many potent irritants.

Tobacco smoke includes dangerous chemicals such as acetone as found in paint stripper, arsenic as found in ant poison, butane as found in lighter fuel, cadmium as found in car batteries, carbon monoxide as found in exhaust fumes, DDT as found in insecticide and hydrogen cyanide as found in capital punishment by gas.

Tobacco smoke whether active or passive also contains lead as found in leaded gasoline, methanol as found in rocket fuel, nicotine as found in cockroach poison, phenol as found in toilet bowl disinfectants, polonium 2010 as found in nuclear weapons, toluene as found in industrial solvent and vinyl chloride as found in plastics. These and many more others justify the “noise” on tobacco. There is also low productivity due to ill health or sickness or death among others.

The FCTC specifies how member countries should go about tackling the tobacco menace. But VALD and MATCO are asking for more to be included in Ghana’s law. For example on the protection from the exposure to tobacco smoke the two organizations are recommending a comprehensive ban on public smoking and a total protection for nonsmokers. They also want a total ban on minors selling and buying tobacco products, ban on the sale of tobacco products openly and together with sweets, and a ban on the sale of tobacco products close to schools. On price measures they recommend a 100% tax increment. In Ghana a pack of cigarette cost about $2.00 while in the developing countries it is about $5.00. The idea is that if cigarettes are made expensive children will not be able to buy. A ban on the single sale of tobacco products is also being advocated. While calling on government to cancel any partnership deal it has with the tobacco industry, VALD and MATCO say government must involve the security agencies actively in tobacco control in the country. By this it is expected that the security agencies will be well resourced for the tax. The two organizations further added that as a support for economically viable alternatives for tobacco farmers government should improve food security in the country. It is also their wish that government will exclude the tobacco industry in any future consultation in relation to policy development. According to them “The tobacco industry is not a stakeholder in tobacco control”.

Another drastic recommendation by VALD and MATCO is in the areas of litigations and general obligations. They want the law crafted such that individual citizens can have the right and be supported to sue a tobacco industry, and the government getting the power to take the industry to court when laws are violated.

They suggest that government hold a national stakeholders forum in tobacco control to gather support for the law before it is passed and also set up a Tobacco Control Fund.

Currently, the MOH has succeeded in using directives to compel the tobacco companies to boldly display warning inscriptions on the front and back of every cigarette pack meant for Ghana. But the advocacy groups are insisting that it is not enough to write boldly on the pack but it should come with pictorials so those who cannot read and write can be at least informed by the pictures. It is imperative that health warnings on tobacco products packaging be made compulsory and taken as a critical strategy. Health warnings should portray the serious health risks of tobacco use and ensure that the packaging tells the truth about the deadly products within.

Additionally, the texts of the message on the pact need to effectively communicate the risks involved and motivate behavioral change, such as quitting or reducing tobacco consumption.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE

The non-smoker’s health and right to a tobacco free air cannot be shortchanged. Government and the legislature must urgently give us a tobacco control law and ensure that smoking is banned in all public places. It should be made an offence for a Member Of Parliament (MP) or a government official to be seen smoking publicly. They should serve as role models for their constituents. MPs and District Chief Executives (DCEs) should also be made to carry the message of the harmful effects of tobacco to their various constituencies in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.

Policies and programmes must be put in place to help curb tobacco use in public places. The all spheres of the media must pick up the fight as a corporate social responsibility and make sure that the education gets to every soul in every hamlet in the country.

Nigeria has succeeded in pushing its tobacco control law to parliament and they are currently working on it at the committee level having already passed through the public hearing, first and second reading stages. It is significant to know that the capital of Nigeria, Abuja, has gone smoke –free, Osun has passed a law against tobacco and is currently fighting big tobacco. The country hopes to get the law in force by the end of this year. Can any official boldly say so for Ghana?

THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA IN TOBACCO CONTROL

By the year 2030, tobacco is expected to be the leading cause of death in the whole world. About 10 million people will die annually from tobacco use and it is estimated that about 70 to 80% of those death will occur in low and middle income countries which include Ghana.

The media must be actively involved in this fight simply because tobacco causes death. The media influences opinion as society watchdogs and their views matter largely. The media must partner security agencies in the country to identify tobacco farming communities in Ghana. They must be alert about the tricks of the tobacco giants and expose them. They must actively follow government and parliament’s tobacco control activities and also follow the tobacco control movement closely.

The media can independently investigate allegations of tobacco smuggling into Ghana to determine where they are coming from and whether it is aided by any “Top Gun” or who is benefiting from the deal.

It should be the responsibility of all to ensure that we attain a meaningful reduction in tobacco deaths over the next few decades, with a substantial percentage of the 1.1 billion current smokers quitting. The estimated 70% deaths in developing countries by 2030 can be avoided if we all get involved in the fight. We must prevent new smokers.

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