Saturday, July 4, 2020

Cabinet divided over tobacco ban as gov’t loses over P100 M on alcohol/tobacco revenue

Cabinet is reportedly divided over the decision by the government and the COVID-19 Presidential Task Force to maintain the ban on sale of tobacco.While it remains unclear who exactly is fighting from the tobacco industry corner, only the Minister of Health Dr Lemogang Kwape has come out in support of the ban, introduced in April as part of the fight against COVID-19.Information gathered by this publication indicates that those against the ban have advanced economic reasons, while health experts maintain smoking exposes the public to greater risks of dying from the virus.

Figures from the Botswana Unified Revenue Services (BURS) show a significant decline in revenue collected by the Tobacco Levy with a drop from P11, 6 million in March 2020 to P1, 9 million in April 2020. The total Excise Duty and Levy collections for alcohol and tobacco products fell from P139, 4 million in March this year to P16, 3 million in April, constituting at least P123 million in revenue loss over the month of April.While President Mokgweetsi Masisi is the founding patron of the Anti-Tobacco Network Botswana (ATN, Botswana), a non-governmental organization whose aim is to free Botswana of tobacco, it remains unclear where he stands on the war between the tobacco industry and health experts.Unconfirmed reports say the British American Tobacco, a market leading cigarette and tobacco manufacturing company approached the Attorney General’s Chambers threatening to disinvest in Botswana if the government does not lift the ban on tobacco.

The company is also alleged to have expressed concern about the growth of illicit trade of tobacco should the current ban be maintained.Those in support of the tobacco industry have also argued it was unreasonable for the government to lift a ban on other industries such as alcohol while maintaining strict measures against tobacco.The tobacco industry recently took the South African government to court over the SA government’s ban on tobacco products. The Fair Trade Tobacco Association (Fita) has challenged the legality of the continued ban of the sale of tobacco products during the national lockdown in SA.The sale of tobacco in SA was banned around the same period as in Botswana, end of March.

President Cyril Ramaphosa would announce weeks later that the sale of tobacco was to resume, only to reverse the decision following pressure from health experts. Fita filed court papers immediately.The tobacco industry in Botswana may have been discouraged by the State of Emergency from pursuing similar action against the government. While those against the ban are breathing down the government’s neck to reconsider the ban, ATN Botswana couldn’t be happier with the status quo.

“The Anti-Tobacco Network Botswana recognizes that tobacco use is an immediate threat to  the control of COVID-19 spread, and calls on Government to stop the sale of tobacco products during the state of public emergency to save lives,” Professor Bontle Mbongwe, Executive Director, Anti-Tobacco Network wrote recently.While the tobacco industry has questioned the link between smoking and COVID-19 Mbongwe insists the ban on the sale of tobacco products is informed by scientific evidence that smoking damages human lungs and other body organs. “Smoking also destroys the immune system hence weakening a smoker’s responsiveness to infections. As COVID -19 is primarily a disease affecting the respiratory system, smokers are therefore more vulnerable to developing severe COVID-19 which may result in prolonged hospitalization under life support machines in intensive care units (ICU) or death,” she argues, adding “persons with long standing chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are also susceptible to severe COVID -19.  There is compelling evidence from pprevious studies that smokers are twice more likely than non-smokers to contract influenza and have more severe symptoms.”

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.