Daggers are drawn once again in the tobacco industry with manufacturers demanding that the government rescind some provisions of the Tobacco Control Act 2007, which banned smoking in undesignated public places.
British American Tobacco (BAT) says the regulations are choking its business and lowering profit margins.
BAT Chairman Evanson Mwaniki said during a meeting with Trade Minister Chirau Ali Mwakwere that the laws were bad for business.
He observed that some of the clauses were not meant to protect public health, but tailored to restrict trade.
Contending that, if the situation continues, then return for manufacturers would go down hence job cuts, salary downsizing and lower tax for the Exchequer.
“The clauses that target advertisement and promotions are not good for business. Enforcement is also an issue since public smoking has only been banned selectively hence introducing a market imperfection,” Mwaniki countered.
Though Mwakwere was non committal as to whether the law will be reviewed, he nevertheless expressed a need for more dialogue to thrash out the contentious issues.
“We know there is a problem since even the attorney-general has pointed out glaring flaws in the regulations. But while his advice is there, City bylaws as well as related ministries have continued to defy it with reasonable reasons. We have to keep on the dialogue,” Mwakwere said.
Mwakwere observed that Government records indicate 87 per cent of Kenya’s smokers are adopting “the deadly habit” in their youth, owing to aggressive advertisements by the cigarette manufacturers in the mass media, hence reason enough to regulate the industry.
Anti-tobacco lobby groups including the Regulatory Body Kenya Tobacco Control Agency (KTCA) are watching the recent developments keenly in the belief that the tobacco sector could be setting the stage for amendments that would end up defeat the intentions of the regulations.
“Currently, the Government is spending Sh20 billion to treat tobacco related diseases in Kenya. In return, it is getting Sh5 billion as tax from tobacco manufacturers. There is no sense in saying taxes will go down if tobacco is regulated,” said KTCA Communications Manager Lucy Anaya. She said the regulations should stay “for the public good.”
She argued that the taxes from the industry compared with government’s expenditure on treating tobacco related diseases do not justify amendments, especially after WHO recently aired a warning that cigarettes are coming laced with lead, a poisonous metal.
Lead, said Anaya, leads to insanity, blindness and impotence.
At the start of last years international anti-tobacco conference in Bangkok Thailand, WHO’s head Douglas Bettcher in his speech dubbed Tobacco Free Initiative, said: “Tobacco kills half of its customers, it kills 5.4 million people per year and half of those deaths are in developing countries. That’s like one jumbo jet going down every hour.”
He said that, globally, with smoking rates in many developing countries on the rise, annual death toll would rise to 8.3 million within the next 20 years.
He added that scientific evidence is indisputable that there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke which causes premature death and chronic diseases. China is the leading consumer of tobacco products.
But Mwaniki is of the opinion that the issue is about ethics in business where quality control is the guiding light.
“We have the Weights and measures department as well as the Kenya Bureau of Standards mandated to go after the unscrupulous manufacturers. We cannot generalise the accusations,” he observes.
BAT contracts 17,500 small-scale farmers to cultivate tobacco over an estimated 15,000 hectares.
Though economic pundits argue that tobacco is grown on fertile agricultural land that could serve the country well if it were put under food production, many farmers continue to earn an income in tobacco farming.
According to data, currently a farmer is earning Sh45-50 per Kilo of delivered tobacco leaf.
Another Anti Tobacco lobby group Movement against Substance Abuse in Africa (MASAA) opposes relaxed regulation, arguing that the government should be bold enough and ban smoking.
“In fact, contracting farmers to farm tobacco is a threat to national food security. The land can be used to grow food,” Masaa observes in their August 2010 newsletter.
The movement’s chairman Dr Richard Gakunju says it is estimated that six billion cigarettes are inhaled every year in Kenya, more than 200 cigarettes for every individual Kenyan.
“As a result, Ministry of Healthy annual report (2009) indicates, tobacco-related diseases killed more than 15,000 by end of the year, out of which, 5,000 were passive smokers,” he scares.
But Mwaniki dismisses the figures as grossly distorted bordering on rumour mongering.
Dr Gakunju says that whereas WHO specifies that the maximum level of lead allowed in products meant for human consumption is supposed to be a maximum of 0.2 parts per million (ppm), laboratory confirmed level of lead in Kenyan cigarettes ranges between 9.0 and 17.5 ppm, to mean local smokers are inhaling 17.5 times in excess of the standard recommended lead presence.
He says that the average tobacco leaf in Kenya contains 15 ppm of lead, suggesting manufacturers are using additives or treatment methods which add rather than reduce lead from the farmers’ delivered leaves.
In a major warning, Dr Gakunju says treating lead poisoning is not easy, cheap or always successful, that it requires specialized centres, equipment and trained manpower, all of which are absent in Kenya hence the need to regulate its intake.
He argues that the Globe is moving towards eradicating lead even in fuel industry hence a need to also kick it out from the cigarettes.
“In 2006, the Kenyan Government announced it would spend Sh15 billion to change over to unleaded fuel. If the government acknowledges that lead is an environmental poison and destructive to machines, what is it doing to phase out the same poison from brands that are meant for human consumption, if not by regulating tobacco industry?” Gakunju counters.