No more delays – Pass the tobacco bill now

In 2001, I had indicated that one of my priorities in health was to enact and enforce a tobacco control law. After more than a decade of consultations and drafting, with support from the Bloomberg Foundation and from the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), we were ready to move forward with the legislation. But I was then moved to another ministry and my almost 12 years of efforts to bring forward tobacco control legislation was halted. The failure to pass the tobacco law continues to haunt me as a lost opportunity and a failure when I was Health Minister.

When I introduced a motion in the National Assembly in 2005 for the ratification of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) – the first ever global health treaty – the motion was unanimously approved, although there was a little resistance from a few Members of Parliament. Later, Minister Bheri Ramsaran had to conduct a new set of consultations and by the time he was ready to bring the bill forward, Parliament was prorogued in October 2014. The present Public Health Minister has promised that the bill will soon be read for the first time in Parliament. I expect that once introduced, a tobacco control bill should, similar to my motion in 2005, have no difficulties in being unanimously passed in Parliament.

In spite of the extensive rounds of consultations lasting for almost 15 years, there are those in our country who insist we do even more consultations. I know that the present Public Health Minister, having announced that this long-prepared tobacco bill will be finally introduced in Parliament, will be approached by many well-placed persons and organisations to re-open consultations. Whether he does or not, it should not stop him from proceeding with the introduction of the bill. It is a well-honed trap that the tobacco companies around the world set for us.

The tobacco companies argue that the consultations were not comprehensive. As evidence, they insist they were never invited to any of the consultations. It is true that the tobacco companies were not invited to the consultations in Guyana. They were excluded because under the FCTC, to which Guyana had signed on with more than 180 countries around the world, it is stipulated that the tobacco companies must not be engaged in national consultations on how to control tobacco.

Throughout the world, tobacco companies are regarded, not as friendly, well-meaning partners, but as hostile infiltrators, invading our minds and bodies, creating sick and dead bodies, for the sake of big profits. Over 50 years ago, the tobacco companies had strong, irrefutable evidence that their products kill people, yet they criminally hid the truth from the public. This is the sordid circumstance that prompted global leaders when we signed on to the FCTC that tobacco companies should not be engaged in our efforts to control tobacco.

While we excluded the tobacco companies from the consultations, these consultations were extensive and no one else was excluded. I personally attended many of the consultations and made many passionate speeches. The official exclusions of the tobacco companies, however, did not prevent them from bringing their views, positions and demands forward. Tobacco companies have developed sophisticated methods to overcome the block against their official participation in consultations to introduce laws to control tobacco.

For instance the CEO of Demerara Tobacco Company (DEMTOCO) attended several consultations even though DEMTOCO was not invited. But he came as the official representative of the Private Sector Commission (PSC) which was invited to every consultation held. Furthermore, the PSC made official representation in writing on behalf of DEMTOCO.

Big tobacco is using its wily tricks to defer action against a proven killer. In this regard, I am disappointed too that the A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change (APNU/AFC) coalition did not see fit to increase the tobacco tax in the 2016 budget. I have been critical of the People’s Progressive Party also for not increasing the taxes more. My more pronounced disappointment this time; however, is because APNU/AFC increased 140 other taxes, including taxing the donkey cart operators and the lady who sells two eggballs outside her house. While in West Berbice the other day, I witnessed the Guyana Revenue Authority trying to collect taxes on people growing bora in their yard, but we do not see it fit to raise the taxes on tobacco. Weird world!

These are the reasons why I had proposed some time ago that the World Health Organisation should pursue a global minimum tobacco tax so that countries like Guyana where the taxes are relatively low for tobacco will have no choice but to raise the taxes. We should not feel proud that we are among the countries with the lowest tobacco taxes.

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