Home Big Interview Up in arms

Up in arms

Up in arms

Fighting tobacco smoke

When the winter session of parliament resumes this coming week, the tobacco control law is expected to take centre stage as one of the the hotly debated motions.

University of Botswana academic and activist, Dr Bontle Mbongwe, who is one of the pioneers of the Anti Tobacco Network (ATN) currently holding the Director office of the organisation is optimistic that the law will be passed this parliament session, in turn regulating the local tobacco industry which has been estimated to be worth billions.

This week The Voice reporter SHARON MATHALA had a chat with the soft spoken lecturer at her office about ATN’s mandate and the progress made.

In this interview Dr Mbongwe candidly explains that she joined the campaign against tobacco smoking after realising the negative effects it has had in society as well as her own family members, with some losing their lives.

She however quickly highlights that their mandate is not to get rid of tobacco completely but rather to regulate the tobacco industry.

Q. Is it true that government is likely to pass the stiffer tobacco law, on top of the newly introduced tobacco levy?

A. The chances are high yes, but it depends on their debates.

The next session will see a debate on the issue.

Next week we are also meeting with Dikgosi as the next session of Ntlo ya Dikgosi resumes, so it is most likely that we will see the law being enacted.

Q. What has the ATN proposed to government to aid them draw up a proper and functional tobacco law that perhaps will guard the tobacco industry?

A. The fact is government has signed a Convention that has all the guidelines.

But in essence we have proposed amongst others, smoke free public places, we also want government to regulate tobacco products.

We would also like government to ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

Government should have zero relationship with the tobacco industry.

Q. But with the fairly new Tobacco levy, is that not government’s way of regulating the tobacco industry?

A. The truth of the matter is that the convention dictates that there has to be a raise in tobacco prices.

This will assist as some people will run away from the price, but not everyone will be affected.

But that is just one strategy we have and we need many other strategies to kill the bird.

We also advocate that government invests money and help those who want to quit smoking by coming up with treatment centres.

Q. Will that not hurt the small business owners who at times rely on selling tobacco products?

A. What we have noted is that when the government increased tobacco tax, there has been a slight decline in smoking.

Tobacco taxes are a proven strategy to reduce smoking, particularly amongst the younger generation; at times these are our focus areas because the smaller business owners at most times target the younger ones.

But with the law in place they will not have access to smoking and tobacco products will not be available on streets, which may increase their chances of never smoking.

Q. Riding on that, recently the news has reported that local socialite Bissau Gaobakwe had hinted and proposed that he will be opening a rehabilitation centre, infact it is scheduled to open this weekend, has the ATN contacted him to assist him in whichever way?

A. No, as ATN we have not. We have heard and read about it in the media but we have not been approached by anyone.

We are willing to assist and we welcome any concept that is in line with our mandate.

Q. The word is that ATN also has suggested that government increase the age limit for persons legally allowed either to hold a tobacco product, to sell and or buy tobacco products, is any of this true?

A. Research has shown us that if a person reaches the age of about 21 years and there about, chances of them ever starting to smoke are very low.

That is why we proposed to government to raise the accepted age rank to 21.

This is also the direction that other countries are taking, so we also want to take that route and see if it can work.

Q. There has been debate about tobacco being a gateway tool to excessive use of the so called hardcore drugs, what is your view on this point?

A. It is true, tobacco is a gateway drug. People who are addicted to all these hard core drugs started off probably just with one cigarette.

People do not want to talk about tobacco addiction; all they preach is drug addiction but the root problem is tobacco products.

We feel the root cause should be addressed and that is cigarettes.

But with proper regulation and with cigarettes not just being sold anywhere, anyhow by anyone I strongly believe addiction will be reduced.

We are not saying ban tobacco, no, we are saying let it not just be sold just like sugar and bread.

Q. What lesson has ATN learned from other countries that have made strides in controlling tobacco use?

A. Some of the lessons we have learnt is that here tobacco control is just the responsibility of the government.

For instance when it comes to issues of enforcement there is government, there is the private entity which is the businesses community and the public.

All these bodies have to work together and own the law.

Q. When it comes to branding and packaging of the tobacco products, what suggestion does ATN have on the graphic warnings?

A. We are advocating for 70% of graphic health warnings.

They must be as big as 70%, other countries like Nambia are currently using that law.

But at the same time we also advocate for plain packaging. We would want that there should be no branding.

We would want government to take that route.

Q. TGIF, how will you be spending your weekend?

Answer: I will most probably be with my grandchildren.

I spend much of my evenings at the gym then spend time with family.