Thursday, December 2, 2021

Gov’t needs to reconsider its religious-like stance towards alcohol and tobacco

Botswana government has been fast adopting postures that are totally alien to the country’s liberal and investor friendly traditions.

Official attitude towards alcohol industry since the State of Emergency began has been particularly worrying.

Consultations during the pandemic are much more necessary because normal laws and liberties do not apply.

Consultation is all the more important so that government can retain the trust and confidence of the private sector.

Business Botswana has always been regarded as a voice of business.

And for various reasons some people have always regarded Business Botswana as too close to government.

This newspaper has on several instances criticized Business Botswana and its forerunner, BOCCIM for what we felt was a failure by these private sector bodies to defend businesses against excesses of government.

Now on the instances of government positions on alcohol and tobacco even Business Botswana is fed up with government’s unilateral and anti business decisions.

The Bill currently before parliament tabled by government to control the tobacco industry is not only draconian but counterproductive. That law is particularly silly in that it will groom and grow illicit tobacco trade while killing the legitimate trade.

This cannot be the ambition of Botswana government.

Botswana government should recognize they cannot have it both ways. As a country we go out of our way to look for investors.

This is a tedious and very expensive under taking.

We do so by making a pitch of what Botswana offers vis-a-vis other competing countries.

These factors include guaranteed private property rights and also the rule of law – among others.

It is on the evaluation of those factors that investors make decisions to come to Botswana. And we cannot, once these companies are here, start acting capriciously including by withdrawing the certainty induced by the rule of law.

Business thrives when there is certainty.

These are difficult times because of the ongoing pandemic. For Botswana the situation is made worse by the rule of law.

But authorities can still mitigate the situation by consulting more with affected industries every time a specific decision is taken on behalf of public health which decision will affect those industries directly.

For the alcohol industry, it is not clear to us why KBL ultimately resorted to go to court to challenge government decision to ban alcohol.

Our view is that KBL did not take that decision lightly.

It was a heavy decision, taken out of desperation.

KBL has also said they were not consulted prior to the latest ban.

In fact say they are routinely never consulted.

For a company of its size, with such complex operations to manage that sounds like negligence on the part of government.

This particular alcohol ban is the sixth that KBL has had to contend with since State of Emergency started.

For somebody running business this takes a heavy toll.

Losing lives has to be balanced against losing livelihoods.

It’s not an easy decision, not for government and certainly not for the industry.

But with more genuine consultation the pain is reduced and the pain mitigated on both sides.

Now Botswana government has also put before parliament an anti-tobacco law that the industry has said it will leave them with no option but to close shop.

British American Tobacco controls over 90 percent of the tobacco market in Botswana.

This size of a market share brings with huge advantages but also disadvantages.

Government is absolutely correct to make interventions.

Otherwise left to itself, the BAT could very easily abuse its market dominance.

But there is no substitute for consultation.

BAT has said they are not against government intervention. In fact they say want such intervention, not least because tobacco is also a national security issue.

Today big names in Botswana are involved in illicit tobacco sale.

They are arrested daily but nothing happens.

These are not the people who pay tax to the state.

They are people with political connections.

Business Botswana remains the right vehicle for government to engage with.

They are on record saying government has not consulted.

The anti-tobacco has been quick to celebrate.

That is false victory.

Government should listen to lobby groups the same way it listens to industry.

Listening to anti-alcohol lobby groups is a mistake that was committed by former president Ian Khama when he introduced the levy.

His hope was that the levy would reduce alcohol consumption.

It did not.

Today this government is listening to the anti-tobacco lobby networks at the exclusion of the industry. The hope is that the law will which is basically a creation of anti-tobacco lobby groups will reduce tobacco consumption.

It will not.

It will ruin lives especially of small traders.

Botswana government stands to lose out in revenue from legal tobacco trade.

This is an opportunity for government to rid the market of illicit tobacco trade in Botswana which by the way has become big business.

With this new law Botswana market will become a playground for illicit and dangerous forms of tobacco as the space is left by more responsible traders fearing the punitive demands placed on them by the new law.

By its nature tobacco is dangerous to health. It should be marketed responsibly. But we cannot live by the dictates of lobby groups like the anti-tobacco lobby groups and the religious network.

Some of these groups are foreign funded. And it is a condition for more funding to show scalps as proof that money is well spent.

Botswana government should consider suspending the process of making this law until government has fully consulted with the tobacco industry, but more especially with Business Botswana for a more responsible tobacco industry regulatory framework that can take into account public health, trade, public revenue as well as interests of anti-tobacco lobby groups.

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