Malawi reluctant towards anti-smoking campaign

WHO picture on tobacco tax
Owen Nyaka, CNS Correspondent, Malawi
While the World Health Organisation (WHO) is championing the anti-smoking campaign in an effort to protect people from the devastating health consequences due to tobacco consumption, Malawi government shows no signs of putting in place public health policies as a top priority to safeguard people’s lives, on the same lines as cigarette manufacturing companies are booming.

“Government is currently in the process of negotiating with some cigarette manufacturing companies to come and start their operations. Malawi will continue to grow tobacco in line with the trade requirements until there is no demand in the international market,” President Joyce Banda said at the opening of this year’s tobacco market.

Tobacco remains the country’s major foreign exchange earner, accounting for over 60% of Malawi’s total forex inflow trade and the country is wooing both the indigenous and international buyers thereby increasing demand for the country’s major forex earner. Tobacco contributes to about 13% of Malawi’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Last year the country sold 168 million kilograms of tobacco, which was more than double compared to 80 million kilograms sold in the year 2012. According to the National Export Strategy report, the country is likely to continue relying on tobacco leaf as its main export commodity until the year 2017.

Global anti-tobacco treaty
The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is the key international treaty negotiated under the auspices of the WHO and was unanimously adopted by all the 192 WHO member countries at the 56th World Health Assembly on 21 May 2003. It entered into force on 27th February 2005.

The treaty, which discourages smoking and cigarette marketing, has been the stumbling block for tobacco producing countries like Malawi with efforts to tone it down proving futile. The treaty entails that countries and regions, upon ratifying, should develop domestic laws that enforce the antismoking campaign and the European countries, the main regional market for Malawi’s tobacco, have been the most active in the campaign.

The European Union (EU) has introduced measures in a number of areas, mostly based on its competencies to ensure the good functioning of the single market. Tobacco Products Directive is the key intervention that is used among the EU countries whose impact has been shown through reduction of smoking prevalence and its related deaths.

On the need to ratify the FCTC, Dingaan Mithi, Programme Manager, Journalists Association Against AIDS, Malawi, said that Malawi should quickly accede to the Framework Convention on Tobacco control to show that it puts public health on the top of the agenda rather than only looking at trade and profiteering.

“As the world commemorates the World No Tobacco Day 2014, it is important for Malawi to take necessary steps to curb passive smoking which has devastating consequences on people’s health. We should also remember that tobacco continues to kill a lot of people in the country, hence we cannot ignore the tobacco disease burden any longer”, he said.

He added that Malawi should join the rest of the world to sign the FCTC and put in place the legislation to ban public smoking just like what Zambia and South Africa have done.

Tobacco earnings
Tobacco has earned US$27.6 million, about MK15 billion, in its first five weeks of sale this year. The earnings are 38% higher than what was earned during the same period last year at US$27.6 million.This news was announced by Tobacco Control Commission (TCC) Chief Executive Office, Dr. Bruce Munthali during a briefing with the media in Lilongwe this week.

Awareness on smoking risk
Spokesperson for Malawi’s Ministry of Health, Henry Chimbali told local press that Malawians need to be aware that smoking is a risk factor for many Non Communicable Diseases. He said that the public also needs to know that second hand smoke is as dangerous as smoking itself.

“The risk factors of smoking for passive smokers who inhale second hand smoke which contains carcinogens and may cause health disorders including lung cancer, are similar to those of active smokers,” said Chimbali.

He said banning public smoking remains the responsibility of the owners of the public premises to create a clean environment for all people and animals living within that area. “But its enforcement by the government lacks supporting policies and regulations which Malawi currently does not have. Our research on risk factors for non- communicable diseases shows that 14.1% of the adult population aged 25 to 64 years uses tobacco products and banning smoking in the country would be needed to ratify the international law,” said Chimbali.

International expert
Meanwhile, Dr. Ehsan Latif, Director, Tobacco Control at the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union) says that increasing taxes on tobacco products is the most effective policy measure a government can take to reduce tobacco-related mortality across a population.

“Increasing tax is also seen as an attractive measure for governments, as it increases their revenues. The question we need to ask now is how these new resources are being used. Some countries, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, for example, are using this extra income to fund tobacco control and to invest in other preventative health measures. Other low and middle income countries need to follow suit to create resources for tobacco control now, and also to create a tobacco control fund which is sustainable into the future,” said Latif.

Owen Nyaka, Citizen News Service - CNS
2 June 2014