Tobacco bill passed –tough fines for violators
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Public Health Minister Volda Lawrence
Public Health Minister Volda Lawrence

–tough fines for violators

THE State has moved one step closer to protecting her citizens from the effects of tobacco smoke with the National Assembly passing the Tobacco Control Bill on Thursday evening.
After eight hours of monotonous arguments which prompted sporadic heckling, Public Health Minister Volda Lawrence solicited a 32 majority-vote in favour of the bill from the eastern side of the house.
Of the 24 opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) present during the voting, 23 abstained, while Ganga Persaud opted to oppose passage of the bill.
The bill, which had its genesis under the previous administration, was piloted by Minister Volda Lawrence, who was tasked with defending what some members of the Opposition described as “draconian” measures.
The Tobacco Control Bill provides for the adoption and implementation of tobacco-control policies in accordance with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
The legislation serves as the legal regulator for administration, inspection and enforcement, while providing legislative protection from exposure to second- hand smoke by eliminating public smoking.

It seeks to reduce tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke; prevent tobacco use by minors and protect workers and the public from exposure to tobacco smoke.
The bill also clears the way for establishment of a National Tobacco Control Council.
But according to PPP Member of Parliament (MP) Clement Rohee, the bill, in its current form, “evokes tremendous amount of controversies” with respect to whether it is pro-business, anti-business and pro-health, in addition to whether it infringes on the rights of citizens.
One of the more controversial clauses in the bill is Section 19 (2), which imposes a display ban on the item although it remains a legal product. This ban essentially eliminates the advertising of tobacco products and forces wholesalers and retailers to sell ‘under the counter.’
In addition to advancing this argument on the basis that it will result in greater hardship for Guyanese who retail tobacco products, Rohee offered that enforcement of the legislation will lead to chaos.

“You are asking for trouble if people will be arrested at a public event at the stadium or some other public place where thousands of people are,” he opined.
Building on his argument, and confident in tone, the former Home Affairs Minister shared that based on the PPP’s experience in government, one of the most important elements of this legislation is its enforcement capacity.
He offered that what the government needs to take into consideration is whether the State has the resources to deal with the additional responsibilities of enforcement.

TOO BIG A BITE
Suggesting that there is capacity deficiency, Rohee told the government that it was “biting off more than you can chew.”
However, this argument was rebutted by Minister Lawrence in her closing statements. She informed the opposition MP that the bill makes provision for “authorised [enforcement] officers” which includes: police officers and inspectors or officers employed with the Public Health Ministry, the National Bureau of Standards, the Occupational Health and Safety Authority and or Environmental Protection Agency.

PPP MP Clement Rohee

Taking aim at the bill too, was opposition spokesperson on Public Health, Dr. Frank Anthony, who said that while Minister Lawrence touted the WHO FCTC, and Guyana’s obligations under that Convention, the bill in reality ignores much of what the 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.
Commenting on the need for programmes to rehabilitate smokers, Dr. Anthony pointed out 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,” he stated.

However, the public health minister clarified that the bill is not an extraction of the FCTC but rather, “it provides for the adoption and implementation of tobacco control policies” in accordance with the WHO FCTC, with the aim of controlling tobacco use.
“The overall intention is protecting our people and ensure they live healthier lives. This bill is about protection for the people of Guyana,” she reiterated.

LONG OVERDUE
Supporting her colleague in the passage of this bill was Minister within the Public Health Ministry, Dr. Karen Cummings ,who was keen to note in her presentation that the bill was long overdue.
“This bill is long overdue. We are not faced with a menu of choices,” she said, referencing the fact that Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) – many of which are caused by smoking — accounted for over 70 per cent of the public health budget for 2017.
She offered that Guyana has been “recalcitrant” in provision of tobacco legislation, and it is unfortunate that the bill was stalled by the former government for 12 years.
The minister noted that “Guyana can no longer afford to drag its feet on reducing the effects of tobacco use on the population, since it continues to threaten the lives of Guyanese.
“This bill is a life-saving bill. This bill will preserve and save many lives of our Guyanese brothers and sisters,” she said, adding that by 2020, NCDs will be responsible for 75 percent of total deaths worldwide.
As such, she noted that tobacco use, which remains the single most preventable cause of NCDs, should be regulated and monitored if the health of the population is to be safeguarded.
“The protection of our children is the responsibility of every citizen” she ended her argument by saying.
The legislation will be enforced by the application of several penalties in the form of fines and prison sentences for “certain transgressions”. These range from a fine of $200,000 for persons who breach the new regulations, along with six months imprisonment, to fines for business entities of up to $9M.
The bill will now await assent from President David Granger, after which it will become law.

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