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Health & Fitness

Law gap exposes Kenyans to second-hand smoke risks

A designated smoking zone in Nairobi.
A designated smoking zone in Nairobi. According to the law a designated smoking area should be a room which is separate, enclosed and sealed from the floor to the roof, with a door. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Many people are aware of the adverse health effects such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic respiratory problems associated with smoking.

These negative consequences have discouraged many Kenyans from consuming tobacco products.

"But the journey towards prevention of health risks linked to tobacco doesn’t stop there,” says Dr Salim Hassanali, a chest and lung specialist at Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH).

He notes: "Even if you're not a smoker, you can still succumb to its effects by continuously inhaling second-hand smoke from those smoking near you."

Ms Emma Wanyonyi, CEO of the International Institute of Legislative Affairs (ILA) observes that a lot has been done to protect innocent Kenyans from tobacco harms, but says challenges still exist.

For instance, the Tobacco Control Act prohibits smoking in public institutions and offices as well as in many venues frequented by members of the public such as restaurants, hospitals and recreational facilities.

Ms Wanyonyi notes that this has helped to reduce the number of people smoking wherever they feel like, without caring about the health of those around them.

"Kenyans have also become more aware of their rights and will be quick to reprimand anyone smoking in a public space such as inside a matatu. Before the tobacco control laws were passed, you couldn't do anything to such people."

She, however, notes that the same Act creates an exception to the above rule by allowing people to smoke in public areas, so long as they do so in designated smoking zones.

This has provided a ‘loophole’ for building owners who in a bid to attract all types of customers (both smokers and non-smokers) usually reserve a 'corner' or open space within their premises to be used as a smoking zone.

Yet, smoke coming from those areas still reaches people seated nearby hence affecting their health.

"Most Kenyans are accustomed to seeing such smoke-free zones in places like restaurants and some offices. Since its common, they may think that these people are doing the right thing when they're actually going against what the law says."

According to the stipulations of the Tobacco Control Act, a specially designated smoking area should be a room which is separate, enclosed and sealed from the floor to the roof, with a door.

Moreover, it should be ventilated in a manner which ensures that air from the area is directly exhausted to the outside without re-circulating or drifting to other areas of the public facility.

"The smoking zones in most places don't meet these standards. They thus continue to expose innocent Kenyans to second-hand smoke," notes Mr Joel Gitali, the chairperson of the Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance (KETCA).

He adds that the law should be enforced at all times to ensure that building owners adhere to the specified guidelines or risk facing heavy penalties for negligence.

In some regions, county governments have been investing heavily in smoking zones to bridge the access gap.

"We feel that this is a waste of tax payers’ money. We all know the negative effects of tobacco. So, the government can gain more by channelling its minimal resources to tobacco cessation initiatives that enable addicts to stop smoking," says Ms Wanyonyi.

"Let those organisations that allow smoking within their premises meet the costs for constructing the smoking zones. We don't see the government building bars for people to drink in. The same should apply to smoking areas," she adds.

The World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) advocates for 100 per cent smoke free public health regulations to effectively fight adverse effects linked to tobacco use.

Uganda's law embraces this principle and does not therefore allow for the construction of smoking zones in public spaces or institutions.

"The aim is to discourage smoking as much as possible due to its health hazards. And that's what we should be aiming at, as a country," says Ms Wanyonyi.

Even though regulations governing smoking in public places exist, she notes that regulating the act in private spaces such as people's homes is still difficult.

"Our concern here is for vulnerable groups such as children who could be inhaling second-hand smoke from smoking parents. They may not complain as they may be oblivious of the risks. And even if they knew, they can choose to keep quit for fear of annoying their parents who could then punish them."

Children are particularly at risk for the effects of second-hand smoke as their bodies are still growing and because they breathe at a faster rate than adults.

Conditions that have been linked to second-hand smoke in children include sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), ear infections, chronic coughs, asthma attacks, bronchitis and pneumonia.

A recently published study in the Rheumatology Journal indicated that being exposed to second-hand smoke in childhood could increase the risk of someone developing arthritis as an adult.

This follows a similar study by the American Cancer Society scientists, which found that childhood exposure to second-hand smoke may increase risk of adult lung disease death.

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