It’s time to enact the Tobacco Control BillACTA
2023 marks exactly 15 years since Zambia became party to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC) and made an undertaking to come up with a domestic comprehensive tobacco control law.
In the absence of a tobacco control legislation, Zambia will continue losing around 8,000 lives annually due to tobacco consumption, according to WHO statistics.
These are preventable and premature deaths which are an economic drain on both household (family) and national levels.
Even before leading to death, there has been scientific evidence that tobacco consumption causes an array of cancerous related ailments that are devastating families and society.
Disease treatment disrupts social and economic activities as it slows down people’s productivity.
It is such and many other effects of tobacco intake that should compel government, particularly the National Assembly not to ignore the need to enact the Tobacco Control Bill of 2018.
Ever since 2008 when the ratification to the WHO-FCTC was done, a draft Tobacco Control Bill was finalized in 2018 after engagement of all stakeholders but it is still pending enactment through the National Assembly.
Successive governments have pledged commitments towards the cause.
Over the years, intense debate on the importance of promoting public health against pecuniary or profit gains from tobacco consumption has continued drawing conflicting interests.
WHO estimates that consumption of tobacco products are responsible for about eight million deaths globally every year.
From the product’s benefit viewpoint, the tobacco industry is arguing to be creating jobs and boosting state-coffers through taxes.
However, to reduce these alarming death rates, proponents of tobacco control believe enacting the protracted Tobacco Control Bill into law is a panacea to the health malaise caused by inhalation of the substance.
If this law sees light of day, it will align with the country’s commitment to attaining the aspirations of the WHO-FCTC.
The WHO-FCTC is the first international treaty negotiated under the auspices of the global health organisation.
It was adopted by the World Health Assembly on May 21, 2003 and enforced on February 27, 2005.
Since then, it has become one of the most rapidly and widely embraced treaties in the history of the United Nations.
The WHO-FCTC treaty was developed in response to globalisation of the tobacco problem facilitated by complex factors with cross-border effects, including trade liberalisation and foreign direct investment.
The accord represents a paradigm shift in developing a regulatory strategy to address addictive substances.
Contrary to previous drug regulatory treaties, WHO-FCTC underscores the importance of demand reduction strategies on tobacco as well as supply issues.
Article 6 of WHO-FCTC provides for price and tax increment measures for member countries like Zambia in a bid to reduce the demand for tobacco, consequently decrease its consumption.
“The parties recognise that price and tax measures are an effective and important means of reducing tobacco consumption by various segments of the population, particularly young persons,” reads Article 6 (1).
Through the Ministry of Health, past governments and various stakeholders have been discussing the enactment into law of the Tobacco Control Bill.
The bill is seen as an obligation to protect the public from the devastating health, social, economic and environmental consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to its smoke.
Tobacco control activists have been aggressively engaging parliamentarians in previous sessions of the National Assembly on the need to push for such vital and life-saving legislation.
After change of government in August 2021 ushering in the new dawn administration of the United Party for National Development, the concern by tobacco control players was the issue of having to start all over again enlightening the new crop of lawmakers and the Minister of Health on the bill.
However, Minister of Health, Sylvia Masebo, is not a stranger to the draft bill and tobacco control in general.
In May 2008 when she was minister of Local Government in late President Levy Mwanawasa’s MMD administration, Ms Masebo issued Statutory Instrument number 39, which banned smoking in public places.
This time around, Ms Masebo, who also once served as Minister of Health in the same MMD government, has new vigour in promoting public health.
“I am personally very interested in this tobacco bill. Issues of public health are close to my heart,” she had said when she first hosted, at her office, WHO country representative Nathan Bakyaita following her appointment.
“I am the one who initiated the law to stop smoking in public,” she said.
Ms Masebo said the bill on tobacco control is one of the draft pieces of legislation government had withdrawn from circulation for fine-tuning and harmonising with other line ministries like Agriculture and Commerce.
The minister observed that the draft bill touches on a number of important public health matters, hence the urgent need to enact it into law.
“I will personally push for the bill to be taken to Cabinet and later to Parliament, hopefully…I am certain that the tobacco control bill will be tabled,” she assured Dr Bakyaita at the time.
On the other side, the WHO representative briefed the minister that the global health organisation is committed to supporting government in enacting the pending tobacco regulatory draft law.
“We have done a lot around the tobacco control bill together with the Ministry of Health and other stakeholders. We have a lot of resources to support the completion of the bill,” Dr Bakyaita told MsMasebo.
Once passed into law, the legislation will also help provide guidelines of tobacco products, devices, and nicotine inhalant products including its production, importation and sale.
With such legislation in place, issues of packaging, labelling, advertising, promotion, and sponsorship of tobacco products and devices, their use in public spaces and workplaces will be critically looked into.
When in place, the law is anticipated to also enable government to address issues surrounding the importation of flavoured cigarettes and indiscriminate smoking of water piped tobacco also known as Shisha, especially by youths.
The bill is further envisaged to consolidate existing fragmented pieces of legislation on tobacco.
According to findings of a recent Zambia Investment Case, the country has more than 56,000 children hooked to smoking, with a growing number addicted to Shisha.
A further 105,200 adults have continued to use tobacco each day, according to the study.
Despite these disheartening statistics, the Tobacco Control Bill is still being pushed and the delay has also been chiefly attributed to interference by the industry.
According to both 2020 and 2021 Tobacco Industry Inference Index conducted by the Tobacco Free Association of Zambia (TOFAZA), industry interference in tobacco law formulation stood high at 78 percent.
Tobacco control campaigners have always argued in favour of public health over profit through cigarette trade.
They contend that there is no amount of money which can equate a single life lost as a result of tobacco consumption.
Therefore, any further delay in the enactment of the Tobacco Control Bill is seen as an affront to promoting public health and a huge compromise by government on saving lives.