Time to join the global movement to stub out the tobacco epidemic
Bill targets not smokers but an industry tapping new forms of addiction
The new Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill is all about regulating a voracious industry to protect young people, workers and nonsmokers from the deadly harm of tobacco and nicotine products.
Any claims that the bill is targeting the choices of smokers and e-cigarette users miss the point.
The tobacco industry is losing ground in high-income nations, with smoking rates and cigarette sales falling. Tobacco companies have shifted their sights for future profits to lower- and middle-income countries and see African countries as especially ripe for exploitation.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said: "Africa is poised to experience a tobacco epidemic. The existence of an attractive, undertapped market and the targeted tactics of the tobacco industry have created a 'perfect storm'."
The best way to protect people, especially young people, is through stringent regulation - the kind in the proposed new law.
Since the introduction of previous tobacco control laws, smoking rates have fallen. When SA's first tobacco control law was introduced in 1993, 32% of adults smoked. Thanks to progressive amendments to the law that rate dropped to just over 18% by 2012. But now rates are levelling off and smoking still claims 42,000 South African lives every year.
The human and economic costs are significant and entirely avoidable. Urgent action is needed to bring smoking rates down further and to prevent the uptake of new tobacco and nicotine products, all of which are harmful to health to some degree.
The bill treats electronic nicotine delivery systems (e-cigarettes or vaping products) and the new heated tobacco products for the most part in the same way as traditional tobacco products in order to prevent multinational companies from attracting young people and nonsmokers to a new generation of tobacco and nicotine products.
SA was once a leader in tobacco control, but that is no longer the case and that means people in SA are at risk. Uganda, Mauritius, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Seychelles, Madagascar and Gambia and more than 50 other countries have comprehensive smoke-free laws, with no exceptions for the smoking areas allowed in SA. Studies show that no safe level of second-hand smoke exposure exists and even low levels of tobacco smoke can cause serious health risks.
Similarly, some scientific studies indicate that e-cigarettes, which contain nicotine and other toxins, can also pose risks to non-users. The health of workers, nonsmokers and young people must be properly protected.
It has also been proved, beyond any doubt, that prohibiting advertising of tobacco products is effective, sensible and necessary to decrease use. With TV, billboards and print advertisements no longer available to them, tobacco companies have to rely on product packaging to promote sales.
Previously secret internal industry documents reveal a Philip Morris executive saying: "In the absence of any other marketing messages, our packaging is the sole communicator of our brand essence. Put another way - when you don't have anything else, our packaging is our marketing."
For this reason the bill introduces plain packaging and graphic health warnings for tobacco and nicotine products. Plain packaging increases the visual impact of the graphic health warnings, helping to reach communities where literacy rates are low.
The bill also ensures the protection of young people and nonsmokers from misleading tobacco and e-cigarette adverts via displays at the point of sale. Just look to the US to see what happens when e-cigarettes are not regulated properly.
Juul is an e-cigarette that has captured more than 70% of the US market in only three years. It looks like a sleek USB flash drive, can be held in a closed hand, comes in attractive flavours like mango and mint and delivers nicotine more quickly, more effectively and at higher doses than other e-cigarettes. Rather than helping smokers quit, Juul and such products are making addicts of a new generation. Use among schoolchildren in the US is rocketing. The company plans to expand, raising $1.2-billion (R17.6bn) to enter new, global markets. Thanks to the new bill, SA has the opportunity to get ahead of these new products and protect its youth from harmful addictions.
Tobacco companies, and the front groups they use, are mounting aggressive campaigns to oppose, delay or dilute the new law. They claim the bill will increase the illicit trade in tobacco and lead to job losses - both flawed arguments.
Every independent study shows that if rates of illicit tobacco use are high, the only way to reduce them is through strong policing and law enforcement. Tobacco control measures such as smoke-free places, graphic warning labels and prohibitions on advertising have no impact on the supply of or demand for illicit tobacco. Reports from the World Bank and the WHO show that for the vast majority of countries, implementing tobacco-control measures is beneficial for the economy and does not lead to net job losses.
We should be clear. This bill is not about stopping people who want to smoke or use e-cigarettes from doing so. This bill is about protecting workers, young people and others from second-hand smoke and nicotine vapour, which are harmful to health. It is about effectively informing consumers about the dangers of tobacco and nicotine use. And it is about stopping the tobacco and e-cigarette industries from promoting addictive and deadly products.
Through the bill, the government is prioritising public health and protecting people, especially workers and young people. It is also fulfilling its obligations in terms of the WHO framework convention on tobacco control - one of the most widely ratified UN treaties, with 181 parties including SA. These measures are proven to reduce tobacco and nicotine use and save lives, which is why so many other countries around the world have introduced them. It's time for SA to join the global movement to end the tobacco epidemic and nicotine addiction.
∗ Lambert, an advocate, is the former special adviser to the US health ministry and the director of the International Legal Consortium, part of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in Washington, D.C.