By Josiah Obat
For months, lawmakers in Kenya have been debating a new bill seeking to regulate the consumption, sale, and advertising of tobacco products in the country. The Tobacco Control Bill 2004 was presented by the Ministry of Health in March and is expected to reach a vote soon.
Dr. Ahmed Ogwel of the tobacco-free initiative at the health ministry says the country is spending too much money treating tobacco-related illnesses.
Dr. Ogwel say this amount, nearly $9 million, is only the cost directly associated with the purchase of drugs, surgery and tests for patients suffering from tobacco-related diseases. He says the country loses much more when workers fail to report for duty because of illness.
Kenya is the leading producer of tobacco in Africa, growing more than 4000 hectares. The Kernyan tobacco industry produces about $100 million a year for the country's economy.
The World Health Organization says tobacco consumption is declining in developed countries, but there is a marked increase in consumption in developing nations. It says about 60 percent of the 5.6 billion cigarettes smoked each year are consumed in developing countries.
National Campaign Against Drug Abuse In Kenya coordinator Joseph Kaguthi says more Kenyans are attracted to cigarette smoking by advertising.
"They have been advertising cigarettes in this country in a very glamorous manner. Things like, 'Smooth all the way.' They have even gone to our primary and secondary schools actually to recruit."
Mr. Kaguthi says tobacco companies have shifted their advertising and marketing strategy to the sponsoring of annual agricultural exhibitions, which are visited by thousands of school children. He says weak legislation in Kenya has seen at least three international tobacco companies relocate to Kenya in the past year.
The controversy over the Tobacco Control Bill of 2004 was highlighted recently when tobacco growers and companies hosted legislators at a retreat in the coastal resort of Mombasa. This action was criticized by anti-tobacco campaigners who saw it as tantamount to bribing the legislators before debate on the tobacco bill.
Sammy Weya is one of the legislators who attended the workshop at Mombasa.
"We were getting information from the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, from advertising agents, from doctors telling us the risks of smoking, from distributors, retailers, ministry of finance was there, it was only the Ministry of Health that was not there to give us their presentation. So it was very intense, very informative and we are now armed to debate."
Mr. Weya says as members of parliament they are open to all shades of opinion on this matter and calls on those with reservations on the bill to present those to them the way the pro-tobacco lobby did.
Mr. Weya of the ruling National Rainbow Coalition party says tobacco is not the only health hazard in life and must not be regulated too much.
"If we talk about the health hazards of tobacco in Kenya today, what is the smoking population I will say 10 percent of the adult population which comes up to about one million people. If you ask me how many people who died in road accidents I will tell you 3000 thousand people, so we have to look at the health vis-à-vis the wealth. How much are we losing and how much are we gaining and balance out. We are saying let us regulate, but let us regulate responsibly."
The Tobacco Control Bill also proposes to stop the sale of single cigarettes in an effort to keep them out of the reach of children. Although the law prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages and cigarettes to children, such drugs still find their way into the possession of minors.
Several Kenyan boarding schools have reported cases of consumption and abuse of a variety of drugs. This trend forced the government to ban the sale alcohol packed in small plastic containers in shops last year.
David Mwambire represents the Tobacco Farmers Association of Kenya. He says the ban on the sale of single cigarettes is not fair.
"The point of sale for cigarettes is by the stick and the kiosk and the tobacco business is by the way 90-95 percent by the stick. If you are going to say that we sell the cigarettes by the packet are you not in effect killing that tobacco business?"
He also says cigarette manufactures should be allowed to spend some of their profits on social welfare projects in the country contrary to the stipulations of the control bill.
Musyoki Kivindyo of the British American Tobacco Company, the main producer in Kenya, says his company does not mind some government regulation.
"We are not opposed to legislation. What we would like to see is the views of the stakeholders taken into account so that we have a balanced and workable piece of legislation. In terms of impact if the authorities do not take the views of the stakeholders then it will not be good practice since you license a company to operate and then at the same time you make it impossible for the institution to operate."
Mr. Kivindyo thinks producers should be included in the tobacco regulatory board to be established by the new bill, but Dr. Ogwel says they should have no role in health matters.
"In matters of health the tobacco industry can not, will not, and should not be a stake holder. They produce a product that is toxic, addictive, a product that when used as the manufacturer has prescribed will definitely cause you disease, often it causes disability and death too."
The Tobacco Control Bill 2004 would eliminate advertising tobacco products and force tobacco manufacturers to display bigger warnings of the hazards of smoking on cigarette packets.
For VOA news, this is Josiah Obat in Nairobi.