Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Smoking and smokers: hate the game, not the players


No story demonstrates how much Kenya has a leg (or cigarette) up on its neighbours in tackling smoking than the one told recently about what the citizens at the border with Uganda are doing. If they want to smoke in safety, they cross into Uganda for their cigarette break, and having polluted the air of that fair country, return home and, one guesses, wait to smoke at night when Kenya’s anti-smoking police have gone to bed. Friends say the whole thing has become very confusing. They go to Dar es Salaam or Kampala and see people smoking in places they wouldn’t if they were in Nairobi.

They fear any time the police or City Council enforcers will swoop on the smokers, but after a while, they realise the rules are different. So they begin smoking too. However, a few days later, they are back in Nairobi and almost get arrested for smoking in prohibited places because they have forgotten that regulations are more stringent. They have come to the sensible conclusion: The surest way to stay out of jail is to give up smoking altogether.

Even non-smokers are suffering, sort of. Recently, media friends in Mozambique asked me to meet a colleague who was travelling to Nairobi. When she got into town, she called me and we agreed to meet for tea at The Stanley. I started making my way to the venue a few minutes to the appointed hour. Then my cell phone rang. It was the journalist from Maputo. Since we had never met, I asked how I would recognise her. To my horror she said: “You will find me standing outside the entrance to The Stanley. I will be smoking.”

I broke into a panic and raced wildly to the place. I reached there panting and looking frightened, and so I guess it didn’t make for the best of introductions. I explained why I was in this state, hoping that from my brave attempt to ensure that some City Council askari didn’t arrest her, she would appreciate the risks of smoking in public in Nairobi, but it didn’t make any impression at all.

So has Kenya set itself anti-smoking standards that are too high for a developing country? Actually, no.

Consider the case of the South Pacific Island of Niue, the world’s smallest self-governing state. It has a population of just 1,400 and few other resources besides fish and coconuts. According to a recent report in the British newspaper, The Independent, there are about 250 smokers on Niue, but local officials say the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses is placing a heavy strain on the health budget. Niue’s Parliament recently passed a Bill that makes it the first country in the world to go smoke-free. The Bill prohibits smoking in almost every place that someone could light up, and the sale of tobacco in public areas.

In Britain, meanwhile, the government has circulated proposals that, while on the face of it seem less stringent than Niue’s, have the potential of dealing a deadlier blow to the industry. One of the proposals is that cigarette companies be obliged to sell cigarettes in plain packets, stripped of corporate logos. So you wouldn’t know, until you took a puff, whether you were smoking a BAT or Supermatch cigarette. However, most of the packet would be emblazoned with a scary health warning about how cigarettes are sure to kill you, and so on.

The difference in the Kenyan, Niue and British approaches might not be obvious, but it’s significant and has far-reaching repercussions. The former two seek to control and make life difficult for the smokers, while London’s does more to disrupt the tobacco industry. In Niue, the Bill hasn’t yet been signed into law because, among other things, there are concerns about whether the ban infringes on smokers’ rights.

There was a time when I spent a lot of my time campaigning against smoking, but I have always been uneasy about the controls on smokers, treating them like criminals or as if they were fools who didn’t understand why they were smoking – or the consequences. The prohibitionist approach is not only old-fashioned, but also profoundly undemocratic.

The best take would, first, be to share the burden of the consequences equally among the tobacco companies and smokers. Thus the laws prohibiting people from smoking in public should provide that if a smoker is fined for infringement (there should be no imprisonment for smoking), half of the fine be paid by the tobacco company. Laws should also make it easier for both smokers and non-smokers to make small claims against tobacco companies, and get rid of the expensive fight that anyone needs to mount today to get any compensation from cigarette-makers.

Rather than fear and threats, smokers should be presented with choices – the most critical ingredient in the democracy recipe. Thus insurance premiums for smokers could be double that for non-smokers, and if they have families, they could be required to pay a higher premium for their children and spouses. And let them choose. Such measures are not only more effective, they are more dignified.

It is ridiculous to see someone being chased down a street by rungu-wielding askaris, only to learn that his “crime” was lighting up!

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