Smoking ban an elitist agenda

A COMMENTARY

From July, Kenya will be among a few countries in the world to place a total ban on cigarette smoking and tobacco advertising. The ban, however, will hurt the poor more than the health benefits it seeks to bring to Kenyan society.

The tobacco ban was announced last week by Health Minister, Beth Mugo. The ban criminalizes the smoking of tobacco in restaurants, bars, offices, bus shelters and even on roadsides. Cigarettes will only be sold in packets, unlike the popular practise all over the developing world where cigarettes can be bought in sticks. Cigarette packs will carry prominent warnings. Mrs Mugo also encouraged wives and children to, “report men who endanger family health by smoking at home.”

If there ever was a lingering doubt that Kenya has an elitist government, then this should be enough evidence to clear such doubts. The ban is decidedly anti-poor and smacks of paternalistic attitudes that assume that ordinary people do not know what is in their own good interest. The ban is likely to negatively impact on the lives of tobacco farmers, cigarette distributors and vendors at a time when jobs are scarce. The tobacco ban is likely to divert attention from much more important issues such as ethnic relations, infrastructure development and primary health care, among others.

Previous experience has shown that the poor living in the slums and villages are likely to be arrested by police for smoking in their own backyards. Of course, freedom can be bought for a few hundred shillings (sometimes less) but you can be sure that the rich man in Muthaiga and Karen will smoke in his large compound completely unmolested. Besides, over 50% of men in the lower income segments are regular smokers and the ban clearly infringes on their individual rights.

The health minister’s suggestion that wives and children should report on men smoking at home is callous, to say the least. Such a suggestion is likely to lead to the break up of families by undermining traditional family structures. Well, we are living in a world where men and women are equal. But telling women to report their husbands to police for smoking is the height of demagoguery. What happens to such women when their husbands get jailed?

Which is worse: to have a breadwinner that smokes after a hard day’s work? Or to have women turning to prostitution because their men are in jail? The unfortunate reality is that majority of women in rural areas and the slums do not have much professional qualifications. Without husbands, their lives become extremely bleak. But then, isn’t Beth Mugo a niece of the late Jomo Kenyatta? Because of her family background that enables her gain financial independence, it is easy for her to imagine walking out on a husband that smokes.

The tobacco industry supports thousands of farmers across the country. The government ban on smoking is likely to impact severely on the meager fortunes of those who depend on the tobacco crop for survival. At the moment, most tobacco is grown under contract farming between farmers and tobacco companies such as the British American Tobacco (BAT) and Mastermind. Sales of tobacco after the ban will plunge forcing the tobacco companies to reduce the acreage of tobacco. Its been argued that tobacco farmers should seek alternative crops to grow, such as maize, beans, potatoes, coffee, among others. However, market for food crops in Kenya is pretty dicey and unlikely to offer the predictable incomes that tobacco provides.

By forcing the poor to buy cigarettes in packets, the government ban is displaying extreme insensitivity at a time of 21% inflation caused by rising oil and food prices. It is easier for a cigarette smoker to buy ten sticks for Shs30 [US$0.48] than to buy a packet for at least Shs60 [US$1]. The retail economy is moving towards smaller portions due to entrenched poverty. Forcing smokers to buy a packet of cigarettes is like forcing a housewife to buy a whole tin of cooking fact when she only needs a spoonful. Majority of Kenyans get their consumer products in small quantities due to the nature of informal sector jobs that pay in daily bits, if at all.

The ban on tobacco will push tobacco retailing and consumption into the underworld. There will be an increase in tobacco smuggling (similar to what happened in Europe) that will spawn vicious cartels struggling to control the trade. Indeed, one of the major sources of funds for the Russian mafia in Europe is the smuggling of tobacco. Illegal groups in Kenya will gain a fresh source of finances that will enable them buy sophisticated weapons. There will be an increase in organized crime in the form of prostitution, gambling dens, human trafficking and money laundering. Some of the proceeds of organized crime will be used to undermine the integrity of the state.

Again, when an economic and social activity is taken over by underworld forces, it becomes very difficult for the government to monitor standards. Most tobacco production, distribution and consumption will be through underground channels. The ensuing lack of quality assurance will expose the Kenyan public to poor quality, poorly prepared tobacco mixed with toxic substances.

Kenyans have a tendency of attempting world records in all the wrong things. The Kenyan government definitely has a responsibility to ensure the good health of its people. The banning of smoking in offices and the banning of smoking on the road side are two different things. The former is pragmatic, taking cognizance of the needs of none smokers. The other is plain nonsensical.

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One Response

  1. Why are cigarettes still sold in Kenya? Because of the taxes, they provide for the State. What harm does the smoke from a cigarette at the roadside do compared to the exhaustion from two million vehicles in Nairobi? New studies reveal, that smoke from cooking in the homes cause a vast greater number of “casualties” per year than secondhand smoking. Well, next is a ban on cooking at home. Smart, then the men can report their wives of causing death and destruction to their family through their ruthless cooking! My goodness. Snitching like that within families wasnt even found in communist regimes.
    All this smoking thing has become a crusade against people. The target is no longer “health” but smokers. This is all one big statistical blurr. Giving the fact that most poor people smoke, why not impose a ban on poverty?
    John / Denmark / Europe

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