Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Madam Speaker, pass the Uganda Tobacco Control bill 2012

On  4th February 2013, the Ugandan parliament will reconvene from an eventful recess in which a head-on collision between two competing arms of government was averted through  the choice, by one arm, of ‘ a path of least resistance’.

More earnestly, today is an opportune moment for our August house to reflect on the task before them especially of dispensing with a long queue of backlog bills, about 23 of them inherited from the 8th parliament alone.

These include; the controversial anti-homosexuality bill, the anti-counterfeit bill, Plant Varieties Bill and the critically important Industrial properties bill which could help legalize generic HIV drugs on which millions survive.

But first, the Tobacco control bill 2012.

Since the bill was first introduced to parliament, 13,500 Ugandans have died from tobacco-use diseases-according to credible statistics by the Center for Tobacco Control in Africa (CTCA).

The Ugandan tobacco industry continues to engage in unprecedented open print media advertising in blatant contravention of a 1995 Uganda government directive banning tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship with no regulatory regime to bring the industry to account.

Children as young as six can buy, unfettered, a stick of cigarette at kiosks and stalls across the country.

Cigarette sales in Uganda have been rising consistently for the past three years. BAT (Uganda) in its published report in 2011 announced a 29% increase in cigarette sales. Little wonder then that western tobacco giants see unregulated Africa as the lucrative alternative to dwindling profits in  heavily regulated western markets.

Smoking among middle-class young females in Uganda is visibly on the increase with many’ sophisticated’ young Ugandan women tragic victims of the industry’s peddled myth of ‘smoking is cool’.

Smoking of ‘shisha’ has become a craze in up market bars in Kampala and the growing exotic community, with smokers deluding themselves that it is harmless to them and those around them.

Tobacco farmers in Arua, Kanungu and Masindi continue to live a life of extreme poverty and bondage by the tobacco industry which enslaves them with loans for agricultural inputs such as fertilizers while paying them a paltry sum for their hard-labour produce.

In the Tobacco growing areas in Kanungu district which I personally witnessed, widespread use of fertilizers for the tobacco crop has literally poisoned the waters for people, animals and crops alike.

Any concerned Ugandan can do a random sample of ten bars in Kampala and light up (even when ‘no smoking’ signs are erected) and you can be sure no one will stop you. The truth is that smoking in public places in Uganda is banned by law (since 2004), although not a soul has been charged in court for this widespread offence.

I am a perennial visitor to the Uganda Heart Institute at Mulago and anyone can see that an unprepared Uganda is already in the throes of an epidemic of diseases of the heart and blood-vessels and a study we did last year confirmed that a significant percentage of those attending the institute have a history of smoking, our lifestyles aside.

The lung cancer case load at Uganda Cancer Institute is swelling. A study done by Fredrick Musoke of Makerere University shows that 75% of oral cancer patients at Mulago Hospital have a history of tobacco-use and that it takes as little as three years to contract oral cancer.

The tobacco control bill 2012 proposes a committee with statutory powers and oversight function on tobacco control in the country with sufficient regulatory flexibility to respond to changes in the industry. It prohibits tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship; it protects individuals from exposure to second hand smoke; provides for price and tax measures for tobacco control; prohibits sale to and by minors; calls for alternative livelihood crops for tobacco farmers.

The Ugandan tobacco industry has sponsored a sustained a media campaign against the bill through tobacco ‘farmers’ front groups and peddling falsehoods which include that the bill bans tobacco crop  growing.

Uganda is already behind its East African counterparts; Tanzania and Kenya (in 2007) which have already passed tobacco control laws.

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