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The new food and medicine administration bill will save lives and advance the public’s health

Dear Editor,

In a recent opinion article “The Magic of the new Food and Medicine Administration Bill” that appeared in The Reporter on December 15, 2018, Yohannes Woldegebriel critiqued the recently introduced bill in the Parliament: a bill that the Ministry of Health intends in good faith to protect and promote the health and wellbeing of Ethiopians.

The opinion takes issues with four matters the writer believed are regulated under the bill: regulation of food, traditional healers and physicians, tobacco, and alcohol. None of the claims regarding food and his concern about traditional healers and physicians are sincere. Let me explain how these claims are utterly false and misleading, and why I believe the remaining claims on tobacco and alcohol regulation are incorrect. 

First, the opinion struggled to create an impression that the government intends to involve itself in the undertaking of holidays and several other social occasions when regulating food. The bill does not regulate social events such as holidays and marriages, and it has never been the intention of the Ministry of Health. Also, it is entirely misleading to suggest that the bill will regulate the slaughtering of oxen and sheep during holidays since the bill does not regulate such practices. Regulation of slaughtering practice is beyond the mandate of the bill.

Second, the opinion’s concern when it mentions that most people still rely on “traditional healers and physicians for treatment or medical care needs” is not a relevant matter. Nowhere in the bill does exist regulation of traditional healers and physicians. Similarity, the concerns on alcohol regulation are over exaggerated.  

On the other hand, it contained several claims about the bill’s tobacco control provisions which are baseless.

Among other, the opinion argued that the proposed tobacco requirements are far more than the requirements set under international convention, violates individuals right to smoke and a company’s right to advertise its products; reduce the tobacco industry’s and government revenue, and will cause significant increases in illicit trade of tobacco products.

First, as a party to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), Ethiopia is obligated to enact comprehensive tobacco control measures such as those included in the bill. No provision proposed in the bill is unique to Ethiopia, and many other countries have already adopted the measures. Moreover, the bill is mostly a restatement of tobacco control laws currently in effect in Ethiopia. For example, the 2015 Tobacco Control Directive banned Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems and flavoured tobacco, effectively banning shisha.  

Second, the claim that the bill will severely restrict individual smoker’s right to smoke and the suggestion to legalize designated smoking areas in indoor public places is unsubstantiated. Under Articles 42(2) and 92 (1) of the FDRE Constitution, and the WHO FCTC, the government have the responsibility to protect citizens’ right to health, to life, and to a healthy work environment. On the other hand, there is no constitutional or legally protected right to smoke. The right of a person to breathe clean air takes precedence over any possible right of smokers to pollute the air other people breathe. Smoke-free laws are not about whether smokers smoke; they are about where smokers smoke. Currently, at least 58 countries have adopted comprehensive smoke-free laws, with no designated smoking areas permitted, including Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Uganda, and others in the African region.

Third, Article 13 of the WHO FCTC requires the GOE to adopt a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising and promotion. In line with this, the 2015 Tobacco Control Directive bans all forms of direct and indirect advertisement and promotion including point of sale display. Also, the WHO FCTC Article 13 Guidelines state that Parties should completely ban display and visibility of tobacco packages at points of sale because they have promotional effects, particularly among young people. At least 35 countries have banned the display of tobacco products at points of sale, including Chad, Uganda, Kenya, Madagascar, and several others in the African region.

Fourth, the protection of public health takes priority over the economic interest of the industry. Death and disease from tobacco represent a substantial economic burden to countries, which is often far more significant than any government revenue brought in from tobacco product sales. By implementing policies that reduce tobacco use, the government will reduce these costs caused by tobacco. Health care costs associated with tobacco-related illnesses are incredibly high, and tobacco-related diseases and premature mortality impose high productivity costs (indirect costs) to the economy because of sick workers and those who die prematurely during their working years.

Finally, tobacco control is not the principal driver of illegal trade in tobacco. Studies have consistently found that levels of illegal trade are generally higher with lax law enforcement and criminal prosecution, weak penalties for smuggling crimes, and corruption in a country. Tobacco control measures do not increase the demand for illicit products, but rather reduce the overall demand for tobacco. Governments can significantly reduce the supply of illegal cigarettes on the market by maintaining robust tax administration systems that include monitoring and enforcement.

Finally, the government must take all action necessary to protect and the interest of public health and  implement the WHO FCTC. In particular, with the tobacco industry targeting developing countries like Ethiopia, now is the time for the government to sustain and defend the global recognition given to the country’s public health achievements of the past two decades.

Wondu Bekele

Executive Director

Mathewos-Wondu YeEthiopia Cancer Society

[email protected]