Op-Ed: Tobacco Bill in Parliament a momentous step forward- Ramsammy

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Below is a commentary by Dr Leslie Ramsammy, a former Minister of Health, on Government’s introduction of the Tobacco Control Bill in the National Assembly: 

Dr Leslie Ramsammy

I wanted to congratulate Minister Volda Lawrence on bringing the Tobacco Control Bill to Parliament. I am hopeful that all MPs will support the passage of the Tobacco Control Bill. I have not read the Bill that is being introduced for its first reading on Thursday, June 15, but I am aware that the Bill is largely based on a Bill which I presented to Cabinet in 2011 and which had its first draft in 2009.

I am hopeful that nothing egregious have been added to the Bill that will cause any MP to object to it. The 11th Parliament has not distinguished itself so far, but the passage of this Bill will represent a momentous event for our legislators and, more importantly, will be to the benefit of all Guyanese. The passage of the Tobacco Control Bill will rank as one of the great steps in improving the health of our people. There is no downside in passing this Bill.

Between 2001 and now, I have been urging a global ban of tobacco by 2040. In the meantime, we need to enact the Tobacco Control law in Guyana. We need to also increase tobacco taxation and I hope that this will also be done. With the impending passage of the Tobacco Control Bill, I hope that our MPs will have the courage to increase taxes on tobacco.

It is ironic that the government has introduced or increased more than 200 new taxes, but did not touch tobacco. This is reprehensible. Since 2001, I am on record in calling for higher tobacco taxes in Guyana and around the world. Although generally supportive of my position, the PPP under President Jagdeo did not move in that direction because it’s taxation policy did not support new taxes. Even though it did introduce VAT, those taxes replaced a number of other taxes. But I think the PPP was wrong on this issue and I think that APNU+AFC is also wrong in not introducing increased taxes on tobacco, particularly since they have introduced or increased 200 new taxes.

I am on record calling for a global minimum tax on tobacco, a minimum tax that applied to all countries. When I called for a minimum tax, it does not mean a low tax, it means a high tax that represents the lowest ceiling that any country can have.

In May 2001, I committed to bringing a Tobacco Control Bill to Parliament. After much consultation and technical support to draft the Tobacco Bill, I was ready to introduce the Bill in 2009. Although generally supportive, the then Cabinet and President Bharat Jagdeo took into consideration the urgings of the Private Sector Commission which thought that excluding the Tobacco Companies from consultations was unfair.

It is true that the tobacco companies were excluded from the intense and comprehensive consultations. But that was because the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) which Guyana was a signatory to prohibits consultations with tobacco companies. The FCTC was the first and still only global health treaty ever. Guyana was an early signatory and 2016 marked our 10th anniversary since becoming a party to the FCTC.

Although very disappointed, to satisfy the Cabinet and the Private Sector, we started another round of consultations in 2009. I explained to the Private Sector that I could not invite the Tobacco Companies because we were prohibited to do so by the FCTC. The Private Sector invited the General Manager of DEMTOCO to lead the private sector team to the consultations. It was subterfuge, but I turned a blind eye and allowed the DEMTOCO General Manager to lead the private sector team because I wanted to ensure that the private sector was fully on board.

In 2011, I prepared again to introduce the Bill. But Parliament was dissolved for elections. By 2012, I was shifted to the Ministry of Agriculture and the new Health Minister decided to resume consultations. By the time he was ready to bring the Bill to Parliament, the Parliament was prorogued and subsequently dissolved for the 2015 elections.

I re-published the Bill earlier this year and asked people to lobby the government and our MPs to move the Bill through the Parliament. I would like to note that the chief drafts person on the Bill was Ms. Kasundra Alves who is the present Chair of the GPHC Board and I hired her to work with me to ensure we had the Bill.

I am hopeful that this Bill will have little difficulty in passing through Parliament. I urge the political parties to allow MPs to vote their conscience on this Bill.

My inability to have the Tobacco Control Bill passed remains one of the biggest regrets I have as the Minister of Health between May 2001 and December 2011. I also regret that I was not able to get government to increase taxes on tobacco.

Tobacco is the world’s greatest extra-judicial killer. We agree as the world to do something about stopping tobacco when we brought into force the first global health treaty – the FCTC. But we are far from doing enough to stop BIG TOBACCO. The time is now for a high global tobacco tax. This is a step towards banning tobacco by 2040, as I had called for in 2001 when I was a Minister of Health and in 2008 when I was President of the 61st World Health Assembly.

The United Nations has agreed that the MDGs resulted in a better world, even if we did not achieve everything we had hoped for. There are less poverty and hunger in the world, people live longer than ever before, there are fewer child deaths and we have reduced maternal mortality. But we still face major obstacles for improved lives and greater equity around the world. Non-Communicable Chronic Diseases continue to ravage the world and the NCDs are increasingly creating disease burdens that affect disability-free lives.

Now we have agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for a better world by 2030. Unlike the MDGs, there is specific recognition of the importance of the NCDs. This is encouraging. There is also recognition that tobacco is a killer and globally we need collective action to reduce and eliminate the negative impacts of tobacco.

Now that the SDG has embraced the goals of the FCTC, it is time we are more robust in our action to stop BIG TOBACCO. In this regards, we must strictly enforce our agreements in the FCTC to increase taxes on tobacco. Research has shown clearly that increased taxes do reduce tobacco use.

I am hopeful that my earlier call to ban tobacco by 2040 will become a global initiative.

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