Friday, May 31, 2013

Don't be a pigeon!

Despite my condition as a serious cigarette smoker, the ban by the Health Cabinet Secretary on all advertising of tobacco products is a welcome development. The link between cigarette smoking and a myriad of fatal health conditions is now beyond scientific challenge; any person who chooses to indulge in the "filthy habit" must do so knowing the risks. Unlike alcohol consumption, which kills more people directly or indirectly than cigarette-smoking, the latter has the potential to affect thos who do not smoke in even more insidious ways. Second-hand cigarette smoke is just as much a killer as directly-inhaled cigarette smoke. If fewer people can be attracted to cigarettes, and tobacco products generally, fewer people will be killed.

Many manufacturers and marketers of tobacco and tobacco-related products will howl in protest that their businesses are being "killed" by the cabinet Secretary. They may very well be right, but that does not mean that the Cabinet Secretary is wrong. The cost of keeping these businesses running has proven to be high indeed. In a nation that can barely afford to equip one public national referral hospital with the bare equipment to treat cancer, it is inconceivable that the Executive should sit idly by as more and more Kenyans are attracted to a way of life that will inexorably lead to cancer, among other "lifestyle" diseases that are expensive to manage. Following the lead taken by advanced western economies such as the United Kingdom and Australia, it should be difficult, if not impossible, for persons to smoke in public places or to to be attracted to the "class' factor os smoking this, that or the other brand of cigarette.

But it is in protecting the impressionable young that the Executive must pursue this advertising ban to its logical conclusion. Many smokers are attracted to the activity while in school, usually high school at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Part of the attraction is based on the advertising; tobacco advertising has been the most sophisticated for the longest time possible. It has also been insidious in targeting young sand youthful persons, especially those who have their whole lives ahead of them. The market in the United States, Europe and parts of Asia is shrinking die to anti-tobacco strategies being implemented by the governments there; it is in Africa and the remaining parts of Asia that Big Tobacco will direct their resources. They will attempt to scare the Executive with tales of lowered revenues; the Executive in Kenya should ignore them and plow ahead with its ban. The revenue lost in advertising will be more than made up by the reduced incidences of tobacco-related lifestyle health problems among the general public. It is a price we should be will to pay, no matter the lost jobs and shuttered factories.

Caution is warranted, though. The fiasco that has been the implementation of the Mututho Law should serve as a warning to the mandarins in the health ministry. "Sin" products are very lucrative, whether in the legitimate or "black" markets. Therefore, there is great profit to be made in circumventing and undermining the good intentions of the Cabinet Secretary. Whether he is successful depends entirely on whether the national Executive is resolute in this matter. If the Cabinet, and the Executive, are divided over the matter, then there will be inadequate planning or execution of the policy. Enforcement of any rules regarding advertising will be laxly enforced. There are only three major tobacco-product players in Kenya; I will be surprised if with a divided National Executive any of them, even the smallest player, is pushed out of the industry because of this ban. Admirable initiatives have been initiated in Kenya before; many failed because we have the attention spans of pigeons. I hope this time things are different.

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