Puffing War: Tobacco industry cries foul
Govt’s intention to speed- up tobacco bill through parliament causes a stir
The tobacco industry, which has created thousands of job opportunities in the country, in addition to paying millions of Pulas in taxes, is crying out that the Ministry of Health and other faceless protagonists, who mostly are stooges of World Health Organization ( WHO) want are half baked bill to pass against all odds.
The Tobacco Control bill which comes with historic socio and economic impact is expected to be rubber stamped by mostly ruling party Members of Parliament in the coming days. Those within the multi- Million Pula sector are arguing that the bill, if passed in its current form, will have sweeping social and economic impacts. The Tobacco Control Bill of 2021 has been tabled before parliament by the Minister of Health, Dr. Edwin Dikoloti, who also stands accused of failing to provide strategic advice to the country’s fight against COVID - 19.
“Firstly, the bill is being tabled before parliament while a social and economic impact assessment study has not been done to ascertain its implications. We as a sector are more than ready to fund the study,” said a senior executive, who works for a tobacco distribution firm.
“Botswana is subscribing to OECD which clearly calls for impact assessment studies before any legislations could be drafted,” explains a senior official in one of the big tobacco dealers. Organization for Economic Development ( OECD) is an international organization that ‘ works to build better policies for better lives. However, the ministry of health has disregarded such. This is despite Botswana Unified Revenue Services, which collects tobacco taxes on behalf of government, benefitting handsomely from a range of technical tax expertise from OECD over the years.
On top of the economic implications, the bill, if passed into law, will have on traders, the sector is overly worried that, the Ministry has not consulted them when drafting the bill as it is ordinarily required. If the bill is passed and ultimately signed off by the President, those who sell tobacco will be required to have a specific license for it. “This basically means you will be required to have two licenses before you can start trading. That is a normal trading license and a separate one for trading tobacco. This will be expensive and cumbersome for traders and investors in the sector. All along we have been made aware that Botswana government was pushing for ease of doing business. However, with this bill, it seems we are going backwards,” said a concerned tobacco trader. Tobacco companies produce and sell a wide range of tobacco products with different packaging and labelling. However, the bill seeks to end all this. Under the proposed bill, there will be no labelling and all cigarettes will be almost the same with inserts which indicate the harmful effects of tobacco.
“This basically means companies which have spent years on brand equity will lose. Secondly, it will even be more expensive for those in the sector to have inserts on each and every sachet of cigarettes,” noted another concerned player.
At a bigger economic scale, the country stands to lose big as taxes contributed by the sector to the national fiscus are expected to fall drastically. The domestic tobacco sub- sector is dominated by British American Tobacco. The company paid just over P130 million in taxes to Botswana government last year, in addition to P153 million paid as excise duty to Southern Africa Customs Union, which Botswana is a member of. In the past 3 years, BAT has paid close to P1 billion to government and SACU. Looking closer to the impact of the bill, if passed, the bill will also put over 25 000 dependents of the sector in jeopardy. “We understand that tobacco is harmful. No one is questioning this scientifically proven evidence. However, we are calling for government to balance the health and economic implications of this bill,” said a concerned parliamentary Chairperson of finance, trade and economic development committee, Onneetse Ramogapi this week.
He cautioned Botswana not to risk falling into the footsteps such as that of Malawi when dealing with tobacco. “At some point, Malawi, tried to do a carbon copy of what WHO wants when it comes to tobacco regulation. This backfired badly on their economy,” he said, adding that, Botswana, like most developing economies, is not ready to introduce the bill under its current format. A more developed country like Australia, with more resources at their disposal, is struggling to implement its WHO inspired tobacco Act, which has introduced plain packaging which is similar to what is contained in the Tobacco Control Bill of Botswana. Ramogapi agrees with tobacco players that, while government is seeking to reduce the health impacts of tobacco with the current bill, the results could be disastrous. “We are likely to see people smoking more harmful tobacco products. For example, there will be no branding and anyone will be tempted to smoke cheap products which are more harmful,” he stressed. “There is no use of government to use emotions when introducing legislations. Instead of rushing this bill, government should focus more on public education on tobacco usage,” he said, as a matter of fact. The tobacco sector has always been at the forefront of sensitizing on all implications related to tobacco use.
Botswana Guardian has seen a presentation from BAT to Parliament Committee on health and HIV/ AIDS relating to the Tobacco Control Bill. “BAT voluntarily introduced text health warnings on tobacco products over 25 years ago,” the company said. In general, BAT is of the view that regulation of tobacco sales and distribution should among others, support public health objectives, protect livelihoods, enable fair competition, respects of
legal rights and value chain among others. In terms of legality, Tobacco Control Bill wants the legal age for tobacco consumption to be 18 years, which is not consistent with the 21 years of age which constitutionally recognizes someone of legal age.
Meanwhile, Dichaba Molobe, Business Botswana’s Director for Public Policy has stated that the bill should be withdrawn before parliament as it is half baked. There are also those players who are arguing the bill does not represent the interests of Batswana, but external agencies such as WHO.
There is also a twist to this whole Tobacco Control bill. In Botswana, Anti- Tobacco Network, Executive Director, Prof Bontle Mbongwe is seen as a proxy of WHO, hence her spirited campaign for the bill to be passed as it is. On the 3rd of August 2021, WHO, together with the Ministry of Health, organized a joint award ceremony to give Mbongwe a special award on her campaign against tobacco usage.
Top officials, none from the sector, were present such as health Permanent Secretary, Grace Muzila and WHO representatives, among others. A former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health, who was crucial in the drafting of the current Tobacco Control Bill, El Shenaaz Halabi, has since been hired by WHO as director.
Furthermore, the fact that the President, Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi who will ultimately sign the bill into an Act if passed, is the founding Patron of Anti- Tobacco Network, does not sit well with the sector.
Speaking to Botswana Guardian after giving a presentation to parliament this Wednesday on the above bill, Chairperson of the parliamentary committee on health and HIV, David Tshere said they cannot stop the regulation of tobacco. However, they are of the view that regulations should not be based on emotions. “Tobacco control is clearly a public issue.
However, we need to deal with it holistically,” he said, adding government should also look at the economic benefits of the sector. If the bill is passed without any amendments, there will be a drop in the sector’s contribution to the country fiscus through taxes as well as employment.
“For example, tobacco contributes significantly to SACU revenue which Botswana receives a share from every year. However, SACU has not been adequately consulted. Secondly, traders and vendors have also not been consulted,” he stated. Sources within the sector are of the view that, if the bill is passed, without any changes, countries which are not members of SACU, but produces tobacco will benefit handsomely. He does not agree with the proposed changes that call for no branding of tobacco products. “Brands are companies’ property.
This basically means government wants to take away this property without compensation which is against our constitution,” he said. Tshere is also against the grouping of all tobacco products under one roof. “This is why we are saying this is an angry law,” he added. The bill prohibits smoking tobacco at home and public places.
“Where do we expect smokers to smoke? This is equivalent to the banning of tobacco.”