Smokers in Kenya are an endangered lot! Indeed, the criminalisation of smoking after introduction of smoking regulations, what once appeared a normal, even enviable thing, has now become a socially abominable practice.
Last month, the Ministry of Health released a new raft of strict rules on the manufacture, buying and selling of cigarettes. Starting this month, it will now be a requirement for cigarette manufacturers to print graphic images and health warnings on cigarette packets.
Similar images must be displayed at cigarette retailing outlets.
Clearly, the tobacco industry is increasingly on its own. Apparently, Kenya has adopted the trend in some countries that seem to be moving towards the total ban. Cigarette could be categorised in the class of drugs like alcohol and miraa (khat), which have been banned in some countries, either for health or religious reasons.
Do not get me wrong though. For the avoidance of doubt, I do not support cigarette smoking. I consider it a useless and addictive habit that does not add value in one’s life! More so, it is as unhealthy as it unhygienic. However, having said that, let us face some hard facts.
First, my opinion is that the authorities are overdoing this anti-tobacco campaign. The impression we have been given that Western cities are teeming with anti-smoking police could not be further from the truth. Indeed, people in some of these places conspicuously puff away in non-designated public spaces, including streets and outside offices. Regulations notwithstanding, people are given a certain leeway to exercise their freedom and responsibility.
Secondly, the move appears to be both a timebuying and diversionary tactic from the tickling health time bomb Kenya is facing. There are no authoritative statistics on the cost of tobacco to Kenya in terms of health and productivity. I think local health experts use global statistics to extrapolate what is happening here. The truth is we are experiencing rising cases of cancer, majority of which have no association with tobacco or smoking.
For instance, since the year started, a close relative has so far counted at least five funerals she has attended, of women in their prime, as a result of cancer. She is still receiving more news of deaths of people she has known for years who have lost the fight to cancer. The highest office in the land has also acknowledged that cancer is reaching national disaster levels. So what is really going on?
How come we hardly hear of tobacco-related health crisis in countries such as China and Egypt, where smoking is almost a national pastime? Is it because nicotine could, in many cases, be more of a compounding and catalytic factor of underlying health problems, rather than a direct cause of terminal illness? In the West, the high cases of tobacco-related incidents of disease could be as a result of a combination of high cholesterol and processed sugar diets.
Heart disease has also reached crisis level in Kenya. A baseline survey would show processed sugars and animal fat diets are the main culprits.
Then there is good old alcohol. In addition to the health complications wrought by excessive consumption of alcohol, we are paying a high price for its overall damage to society.
No one is talking about pollution with the same zeal we are hitting big tobacco. I believe most people in urban centres are affected more by vehicle plumes than from second-hand smoke.
So let us have some sense of proportion and perspective. In my view, cigarette smoking is not one of our most immediate health concerns. It is definitely good to start curtailing tobacco consumption early. However, right now, we have bigger fish to fry in the health sector.
The writer is the Executive Director, Centre for Climate Change Awareness —www.centreforcca.org