Report: Kenya losing momentum in anti-tobacco war

Kenya has lost the gains made in tobacco control before the Covid-19 pandemic, a new report shows.

The Global Tobacco Index is produced by the Global Centre for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC) as part of the STOP (Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products) global tobacco industry watchdog.

It focuses on the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), Article 5.3.

It also highlights obstacles to tobacco control from the tobacco industry in a bid to empower governments to advance tobacco control.

The Kenya Tobacco Industry Interference Index is part of the Global Tobacco Interference Index.

The report was prepared by the Consumer Information Network (CIN).

WHO data indicates that more than 80 percent of tobacco smokers live in the low and middle income countries.

In Kenya, more than half or 50 percent of the hospital admissions are due to NCDs and on average, eight of every ten or 80 percent of premature deaths are related to the use or exposure to tobacco.

WHO estimated the country’s overall prevalence of tobacco use at 11.8 percent in 2018.

Kenyans consume almost 8 billion cigarette sticks annually.

In the 2021 index, the country has recorded a score of 39, as compared to a score or 40 in 2020.

Among the index benchmarks are the WHO-FCTC which Kenya ratified on June 25, 2004.

The agreement came into force in February 27, 2005.

In 2007, Kenya passed the Tobacco Control Act, and later enacted the Tobacco Control Regulations in 2014, amid stiff but ultimately futile legal opposition from BATK and Mastermind Tobacco.

One of the positive strides noted in the report was Kenya’s move to ratify the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products on May 4, 2020.

Addressing an online press briefing recently to reveal the findings, Mr Samwel Ochieng of the Consumer Information Network (CIN) said the score was higher in countries with a greater level of interference from the tobacco industry.

He termed the scores “a small gain”, adding that Kenya needs to do more to rein in the tobacco marketers’ drive to avail the life-threatening products to more members of the public.

“If you look at the list, the countries with the lowest levels have recorded the lowest scores.

Kenya’s score shows that we lost the gains made before the pandemic, which earned us a score of 33.

Despite a marginal improvement of one point from 40 to 39, it is still along way off the 33 we scored in 2019,” said Mr Ochieng.

Mr Ochieng said the tobacco industry led by British American Tobacco Kenya (BATK) has continued to step up efforts to increase market presence in the country that is home to approximately 51 million Kenyans.

“During the pandemic, BATK took advantage of the relaxed regulatory atmosphere and engaged in aggressive marketing as well as corporate social responsibility (CSR) engagements that increased its often deceptive profile as an organization with good intentions,” he said.

“The firm managed to convince the government to list it as an essential service provider despite the harmful effects of tobacco use on human health,” he added.

In 2020, BATK’s marketing efforts saw the firm’s profit shoot up to Ksh.5.5 bn, representing a Sh 1.6 bn increase from the Ksh.3.9 bn it made in 2019.

Mr Ochieng cited last year’s World Environment Day celebrations as “an unfortunate case of the company attempting to deceive Kenyans on its concern for the environment”.

“On June 5, 2020, BATK hosted an event to mark the occasion .

Among the guests invited to the occasion were the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) Nairobi county director,” he said.

According to Mr Joel Gitali of the Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance (KETCA), the move amounted to legitimizing the tobacco industry’s attempts to portray itself as a genuine stakeholder in efforts to conserve the environment.

He said the officials acted in violation of Article 5.3 of the FCTC and Part 5 of the 2014 Tobacco Control Regulations, which prohibit state officials from taking part in any activities designed to promote the tobacco industry.

“Our laws do not allow the participation of government employees in any activities designed to promote the interests of the tobacco industry,” he said in Nairobi recently.

Mr Gitali said his organization wrote a letter to NEMA protesting the move. The environmental watchdog officials responded with an admission of error and also committed themselves not to repeat the same.

“We wrote to NEMA and pointed out the erroneous move to associate with tobacco industry representative.

The agency wrote back to admit the mistake and also promised not to repeat it,” he said.

Mr Gitali also criticized the collaboration announced by BATK and Migori County to plant 200,000 trees as part of an environmental conservation drive.

“It is quite sad that BATK has issued a press release to announce the partnership with Migori County targeting the planting of 200,000 trees.

While we are not against corporate bodies participating in environmental conservation, we find it painful and ironical that a company whose products are harmful to human health would claim to be concerned about protecting our environment,” said Mr Gitali.

He said there were disturbing instances of conflict of interest, citing a former top state official now serving on the BATK board in addition to serving on a government body.

“It is sad to note that a retired senior government officer is serving on the BAT board, while sitting on another state advisory board.

This is clear conflict of interest that would enable BATK to get its wishes for less stringent regulation fulfilled,” he said.

BAT Kenya has been expanding its range of tobacco products to attract a younger crop of users.

In 2019, the tobacco giant launched smoke free nicotine pouches under the Lyft brand into the Kenyan market.

According to International Institute of Legal Affairs (IILA) chief executive Celine Awuor, the firm “completely bypassed the Tobacco Control Act 2007” and got approval and licensing of this new product from a different government agency.

“Instead of applying for registration and approval from the Tobacco Control Board (TCB), BATK applied for registration of Lyft from the Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB).

This move was however overturned by CS Mutahi Kagwein a fresh directive issued in the wake of uproar over the board’s puzzling move,” she said.

Mr Gitali has asked the government to take action against state officials found to have taken money from “BAT’s deep pockets”, as well as the PPB staff that licensed the nicotine pouches as smoking cessation products.

“It is on public record that some senior state officials have received monies from BAT’S deep pockets.

These individuals, along with those that gave Lyft the PPB license, should be prosecuted for breaking the law,” he said.

Ms Awuor also sounded an alarm on what she called “the shocking and illegal engagement between the ministry of health and BAT”, adding that there was no reason for it to take place.

“Information on these meetings between state officers and BAT staff is nor readily available as it is shrouded in bureaucracy and secrecy.

She lamented the fact that the government had been slow to implement the tobacco control fund, adding that this sluggish pace had severely curtailed the Tobacco Control Board’s ability to curb tobacco marketing and use.

“BAT has consistently tested and violated all tobacco control measures.

We call upon the government to ensure that these rogue tactics are firmly contained by full implementation of the Tobacco Control Act and Regulations,” she said.

It is time to operationalize the Tobacco Control Fund, which will redirect 5 percent of tobacco firm profits to the kitty for use in the healthcare sector,” added Ms Awuor.