Opposition warns gov’t about Bill’s ‘harsh penalties, impractical measures, omissions’
and exhausting’ was the description given to the presentation made by Health Minister, Volda Lawrence, by Opposition Parliamentarian, Clement Rohee, who argued that the Minister failed to address major issues in the Bill. He made clear that it was the former People’s Progressive Party/ Civic (PPP/C) administration that initiated the drafting of the Tobacco Control Bill, but charged that the Bill was “parked” because the controversial elements of the Bill were recognised and had to be deal with in a holistic manner.
Rohee warned too that the State must be wary of becoming “too intrusive” when it comes to people’s personal lives, referring to mention of smoking restrictions in persons’ homes in the Bill. “The intrusive nature of the Bill ought not be underestimated,” Rohee said.
The Opposition Parliamentarian also called for the government to back up its arguments in favour of the Tobacco Control Bill 2017 with statistics. “In a Guyana context do we have specificities in relation to data on smoking…if this data is available then it should be presented in the House…we need to be convinced on the basis of fact, not fiction,” he said, noting references to dated studies, which are public but go back to 2009.
Rohee added, “…there are controversial elements included in the Bill. “He stressed the need to address these; rather than passing a flawed piece of legislation.
The Opposition Parliamentarian said, “This bill is fraught with a host of controversial matters…controversies that rest within the customs and the morals of our society, traditions, it also evokes tremendous amounts of controversy in respect as to whether it is pro-business or anti-business or pro health … and also the question of impinging on personal freedom and human rights.”
Similar arguments were raised by Opposition Par- liamentarian, Dr Frank Anthony, who made a point of stressing that the health impacts of using tobacco and tobacco products are not disputed.
“There is no doubt that the tobacco epidemic is a major national concern…the Bill has many positive attributes and I support those, but it also has some harsh penalties and impractical measures and omissions,” he said.
Among the controversial issues cited by the Anthony and Rohee are:
• The move to have ‘prescribed officers’ identified by the Health Ministry vested with police powers, patrolling public venues to “hunt down smokers” participating in social events;
• The issue of capacity, given the ‘prescribed officers’ will be tasked with a “monumental” task;
• The issue of resources to address enforcement;
• The impact on small vendors who will face restrictions on showcasing tobacco products that they have for sale and the fact that they will be restricted from selling single cigarettes, rather they would have to sell entire packs;
• The fact that there is no broad- based approach to tackling the Tobacco epidemic, given that even the Committee that will coordinate the implementation of the Bill is totally controlled by government, with no space afforded for the participation of other sections of civil society; • The entanglement of significant conflicts of interest and wide ministerial powers; and • That the Bill seems dominated by fines and penalties, the lowest fine being $10,000 and the highest fine being $9M with 12 months imprisonment, among others.
CONVENTION’S PROVISIONS IGNORED
Anthony stressed that while Minister Lawrence touted the World Health Organisation’s ( WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control ( FCTC) and Guyana’s obligations under that Convention, the Tobacco Control Bill 2017, in reality, ignores much of what t he Convention advises.
“When we compare the Convention with the Bill before us, we see that Articles (in the Convention) are left out and one article is only partially included in the Bill,” he said.
The core demand reduction provisions in the WHO FCTC are contained in articles 6 to14: Price and tax measures to reduce the demand for tobacco; and Non-price measures to reduce the demand for tobacco, namely: Protection from exposure to tobacco smoke, Regulation of the contents of tobacco products, Regulation of tobacco product disclosures, Packaging and labeling of tobacco products, Education, communication, training and public awareness, Tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and Demand reduction measures concerning tobacco dependence and cessation. Anthony charged that these are largely not addressed holistically in the Tobacco Control Bill 2017.
“We have taken it (major provisions) out or have not put it in, although the convention speaks to it,” he said, with specific reference to regulating the content of tobacco products.
The Opposition Parliamentarian added, “How do you propose to educate the public?”
Addressing the mention by Minister Lawrence that there will be programmes to help smokers quit, he noted that there is no clear programme set out in the Bill. “Where do you refer them? What support system will be there to help persons to quit? There is none….we are lacking in this regard…. and the Framework (FCTC) speaks to this,” Anthony said.
The WHO FCTC opened for signature on 16 June to 22 June 2003 in Geneva. The Convention entered into force on 27 February 2005 – 90 days after it had been acceded to, ratified, accepted, or approved by 40 States.