The Tobacco Control Bill 2017, was on Thursday read for the second time in the National Assembly, with arguments being opened by Minister of Public Health, Volda Lawrence.
In the preface of her presentation, the Minister noted that the health and well being of the nation is the key priority of the Government and that the Bill “must be passed today”.
She maintained that the Bill seeks to protect present and future generations from the devastating harms of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke, to prevent tobacco use by minors, to protect workers and the public from exposure to tobacco smoke, to prevent exposure to the public- especially minors, to ban tobacco advertising and sponsorship, to enhance public awareness of the hazards of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke.
Lawrence also mentioned that the Bill will seek to regulate the tobacco industry, its products and sales, and “to protect public health policies from the commercial and other vested interest of the tobacco industry.”
She noted however, that the Bill does not seek to ban tobacco products except for in popular places including Health and Education facilities and Government buildings.
Asserting that the Bill is not intended to “punish smokers”, Lawrence posited that programs and initiatives will be implemented to assist tobacco addicts to fight the “cancerous” habit.
She explained that Tobacco kills at least 7M people a year, with 6M being direct users of the product and the other million being affected by second hand smoke.
According to Lawrence, “tobacco is the most unique legally sold product given that it is guaranteed to kill more than half of its users.”
In addition, her argument suggested that 250 of the chemicals found in tobacco are harmful while another 50 contributes to cancer.
“Tobacco is the leading cause of death, disease and disabilities,” she said while pleading to the Parliament to “choose life for our people.”
The House heard that the subject product deprives families of income, depletes the labour force and increases public health care. It is also reported to be the cause for sudden deaths in infants and contributes to premature births in pregnant women.
The Minister also slammed the arguments put forward by the Tobacco Industry saying that they were not innovative and were creating doubts and controversy with relation to health risks.
Lawrence told the House that Former Minister of Health, Dr Leslie Ramsammy was on recorded stating that his failure to have the Tobacco Control Bill passed continues to haunt him as a failed opportunity.
Meanwhile, Member of Parliament for the People’s Progressive Party Member, Clement Rohee responded to Lawrence’s argument asserting that his party was not impressed, while warning that the State needs to be careful in becoming too intrusive in the personal lives of individuals.
“We are not impressed. This bill is fought 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…[These are] controversial elements in her argument,” Rohee said.
He posited that the Minister was tossing out statistics and comparisons based on information provided by higher level countries, highlighting that Guyana “is still groveling with certain fundamental issues.”
“In a Guyana context, I believe it is tantamount to exerting unnecessary burdens given the local conditions and this bill seeks to impose certain standards that are applicable in a society that Guyana is still aspiring to reach.”
In addition, smoking is a personal decision, which is a constitutional right of an individual. “Persons who don’t want to smoke hard drugs like Ganja… gets relief from it…That is their own personal decision.”
Moreover, Rohee referred to the section of the Bill which he said would provide Police powers to representatives of the Public Health Ministry, positing that this will prove to be “dangerous.”
He further lamented on how tedious it would be for law enforcement officials to walk amongst crowds to pin-point smokers, comparing it to scenarios in the past where officers sought to shut a party down and it resulted in chaos.
“Same way like police would enter a public place and claim that the band should stop playing at a certain hour and pandemonium breaks out…Already law enforcement officers are under tremendous pressure, you are giving them additional responsibilities to go hunt down smokers in a public place.”
Rohee further questioned “why in a situation of the nature we have today in Guyana, economic downturn, high unemployment, high levels of poverty, we are seeking at this time to bring a bill to impose greater hardships to people who are struggling to make a living?”
He noted that this was depriving the common man of making a living while noting that “the entire country becomes hostage to a law that is alien to our traditions, our customs and given economic circumstances.”
A total of 11 speakers- inclusive of Lawrence and Rohee- are scheduled to debate on the Bill before it is put to a vote in the National Assembly. With Government having a majority in the House, it is more than likely that the Bill will be passed provided that everybody from their side is present. (Ramona Luthi)