Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Botswana faces opposition over questionable deal with tobacco company

The government of Botswana is facing increasing pressure to abandon an agreement it signed with Japan Tobacco Incorporated (JTI) and the Nara Institute of Science and Technology. While government insists that the tripartite and exclusive global licensing agreement was meant to boost agriculture by using technology to harness drought tolerance and increased productivity in monocotyledonous crops such as maize, anti tobacco campaigners have dismissed the deal as a corrupt ridden pact with the devil that flouts all the anti tobacco conventions that Botswana has signed up to.

The Botswana government is accused of breaching World Health Organisation (WHO) standards and compromising the health of its citizens by signing an agreement with JTI on the commercialisation of research technology involving the use of genes found in melons. Accusations are flying thick and fast that the agreement between Botswana and JTI violates provisions of the Control of Smoking Act and the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which Botswana is party to. Sunday Standard is reliably informed that the decision to sign the agreement was made after a collective endorsement by cabinet, but without consultation of members of the public.

“This issue is much bigger than originally thought. The Ministry of Agriculture is under pressure for some cabinet ministers who will benefit immensely from the project,” said sources close to the deal. They alleged that a number of cabinet ministers were personally visited and wined and dined by representatives of JTI who were canvassing for support for the project.

The cabinet ministers later endorsed the deal in haste, forgetting that Botswana was party to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which does not accept support for or endorse any partnership with any individual or organisation that is involvement in the tobacco industry. The Anti Tobacco Network (ATN) Botswana has dismissed the deal, saying it is uncalled for because it violates the provisions of the Control of Smoking Act and the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which Botswana is party to. ATN patron Joy Phumaphi recently said it is unfortunate that Botswana has chosen to partner with JTI and urged government to seek a more appropriate partner. The network petitioned both the Ministry of Health and Agriculture demanding that Botswana withdraws from the agreement with immediate effect as it is in contravention of the tobacco control laws of Botswana.

The ATN also demanded that Botswana should terminate all contracts or dealings with any person employed by JTI or any entity working to further the interests of JTI in the Ministry of Agriculture and to return all the equipment, funds and any other donations to JTI with immediate effect. ATN is concerned that, in signing the agreement, the Minister of Agriculture failed to take into consideration the country’s tobacco laws and treaties. The network also expressed fear that the Ministry of Agriculture has fallen prey to the strategies and tactics of the tobacco industry to interfere with tobacco control efforts in direct or indirect ways.

ATN is of the view that the agreement poses a threat to upcoming tobacco control laws because JTI considers Framework Convention on Tobacco Control measures to be excessive and going beyond the treaty. “JTI is opposed to plain packaging for tobacco products; it does not support large health warnings contrary to the provisions of the Framework Convention on Tobacco control. In their website JTI made it clear that they do not believe that laws prohibiting smoking in all workplaces and places open to the public are the solution,” said the ATN in their petition. They argued that the Government and tobacco industry partnerships constitute conflict of interest as the nation’s health is compromised.

“Article 5.3 of the Framework, Convention on Tobacco Control compels parties to the conventions not to accept, support or endorse partnerships and non-binding or non-enforceable agreements as well as any voluntary agreements with the tobacco industry or any entity or person working to further its interest,” the petition noted. In an interview with Sunday Standard, Anti Tobacco Network ?Executive Director and also Senior Lecturer at University of Botswana, Bontle Mbongwe, said they have advised the Ministry of Agriculture that the partnership should be terminated because it creates a conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and the overall government of Botswana’s commitment to health and safety of the nation. “Furthermore the Ministry was advised not to allow the promotion of JTI, which in turn is a form of promotion of lethal tobacco products and tobacco use, to which the government of Botswana is opposed to,” she said. Reached for comment Assistant Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture Oreeditse Molebatsi promised to give this publication a comment on Friday morning but he was unreachable as his phones were off.

However, Molebatsi recently pleaded with parliament not to be too worried by JTI’s ties with the tobacco industry, saying the company has since diversified and now deals with a number of products that are not tobacco related. JTI was founded as a cigarette manufacturing company, one of the largest in the world, listed in the Nikkei 225 and the Fortune 500. Its top cigarette brands include Camel, Salem and Winston and the company also has interests in engineering, pharmaceuticals, foods and real estate. It has also faced numerous multimillion dollar lawsuits from former tobacco users who wanted compensation for damages inflicted by tobacco. Tobacco smoking has killed more than 100 million people in the past century. According to WHO tobacco use and second hand smoke kill more people annually than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

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