By Nelson Manneh
Gambian business tycoons who import tobacco products argue that it is not in the interest of the Gambia Government to eliminate the importation and consumption of tobacco products because the government earns millions of dalasis annually from tobacco taxation.
The number of young people involved in smoking tobacco products, especially cigarettes in The Gambia is snowballing to an alarming degree.
Annually, about eight million people die from diseases caused by tobacco use globally.
Cigarette smoking is the most common form of tobacco use in The Gambia.
The Tobacco epidemic is said to be one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced, killing more than eight million people a year, including around 1.2 million deaths from exposure to second-hand smokers.
Second-hand tobacco smoke is the smoke emitted from the burning end of a cigarette or from other tobacco smoked products and the smoke exhaled by the smoker.
Over twenty years the Gambia has put together a good collection of legal frameworks that reassures tobacco control.
The Gambia has enacted the Tobacco Control Act and has also come up with Tobacco Control Regulations. The Gambia has approved the Protocol to Eliminate Unlawful Trade in Tobacco Products and developed the National Tobacco Control Program Document.
With all these beautiful laws tobacco control in the country still faces various challenges. It is not prioritised and has not been getting sufficient resources. The tobacco control ingenuities are not well synchronised and there is very little data that can inform decision-making.
In their effort to curtail the use of tobacco the Gambia government through the Ministry of Health came up with an Act in 2016 called the ‘Tobacco Control Act 2016’. The Tobacco Control Act, 2016 was adapted in December, 2016 and entered into force on December 17th, 2018.
The Tobacco Control Regulation, 2019 contains implementing details related to health warning content, sales restrictions, disclosure requirements, smoke free places, and enforcement. The Regulations entered into force on October 1, 2019.
The Act prohibited all indoor workplaces, public places, and on all means of public transport smoking.
“There is a comprehension ban on tobacco advertising and promotion. All forms of tobacco sponsorship are prohibited by the Act.”
As of September 6, 2021 smoked tobacco products packing is required to display combined picture and text warnings on cigarette packets.
The 2016 Tobacco Act prohibits the sale of smokeless tobacco, single cigarettes, small packets of cigarettes, and tobacco in unit packages weighing less than 100 grams. The sale of tobacco products is prohibited to persons under the age of 18. The Act bans the sale of e-cigarettes.
In February 2014, the Ministry of Health in Collaboration with other international bodies launched the first-ever national media campaign to advise people about the destructive effects of tobacco.
Mr Omar Badjie the Program Manager Non-communicable Diseases Unit, under the Directorate of Health Promotion and Education said studies have shown that, the use of tobacco in The Gambia is still on the increase, especially among the youth folk of the populace.
He said even though Gambia has made significant achievements over the past years on tobacco control, there´s no proper implementation or effective enforcement plan for tobacco control legislation that will minimise the use of tobacco among young people in the Gambia.
“Tobacco use still poses serious challenges to the people of the Gambia and their dream to attain their right to health despite all the efforts of tobacco control advocates especially among the youth folks. Studies have also shown that, the use of tobacco is still on the increase in the Gambia especially among the youth folk of the populace,” he said.
He said the most avoidable cause of death and disease in the Gambia is due to tobacco use. “Several diseases due to which most people die such as cancer, heart diseases, high blood pressures and chest infections are found to be mainly/directly related to tobacco use and related lifestyle habits in the Gambia.”
The Program Manager of the Non-communicable Diseases Unit under the Directorate of Health Promotion and Education said over the years his unit has embarked on several enforcement programs just to discourage people from smoking Cigarettes.
“Most of the regulations are meant to discourage people from consuming Cigarettes. It is stated that no one should smoke publicly, that you should move hundred metres away from the public before smoking, all this is meant to discourage people from smoking,” he said.
Mr Badjie said the usage of Tobacco contributes too many health complications and that is why the health authorities came up with the Tobacco Control Act to regulate the consumption of Tobacco.
“There is no law that bans the consumption of Tobacco in the Gambia. This is why we cannot ban the importation and selling of Tobacco but if the Act is fully implemented it can help to control its usage,” he said.
He said most smokers are male, between the ages of 25 and 54 years living mainly in urban areas.
Mr Badjie said the three most used cigarette products in the Gambia are Piccadilly, Bone and Royal Business, which account for about three-quarters of all cigarettes imported to the Gambia.
He said for the Act to be fully implemented it should be everybody’s responsibility to make sure that there is no public smoking.
Research has shown that all forms of tobacco are harmful, and there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco.
Over 80% of tobacco users worldwide live in low and middle-income countries, where the burden of tobacco-related illness and death is heaviest. Tobacco usage contributes to poverty by diverting household spending from basic needs such as food and shelter to tobacco.
The economic costs of tobacco use are substantial and include significant health care costs for treating the diseases caused by tobacco use as well as the lost human capital that results from tobacco-attributable morbidity and mortality.
Based on scientific evidence, the conference of the Parties to the World Health Organization Framework Convention of Tobacco Control has stated that 100% smoke-free environments are the only proven way to adequately protect the health of people from the harmful effects of second-hand tobacco smoke.
Research further stated that tobacco kills up to half of its users. In 2020, 22.3% of the global population used tobacco, 36.7% of all men and 7.8% of the world’s women.
53-year-old Lamin Camara, who has been smoking for the past thirty years, said he started smoking at the age of 23-years-old.
“I started smoking when I was still going to school. I got it from smoking through peer influence, all my friends at the time were smoking and they introduced me to smoking,” he said.
Mr Camara said smoking cigarettes was fun to him. He said sooner before he realised that it was harmful he was already addicted to it and cannot do away with it.
“It is financially expensive; I spent more than twenty-five dalasis a day just to satisfy myself which is expensive. I sometimes prioritised buying cigarettes over buying food,” he said.
The 53-year-old addicted smoker said he was once admitted at the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital and he was advised to stop smoking otherwise he will die by cigarette but still he cannot stop.
“I struggled to avoid it for a while but I was not able to completely stop smoking, up to date I am still smoking. I cough the whole night but I still smoke,” he said.
Mr Camara said it is true that smoking kills but the government of the Gambia is not doing much to control cigarette consumption.
“There are laws governing smoking but I have never heard that the government of the Gambia prosecutes someone for violating those laws. The government has all it takes to stop the importation of tobacco products but they will not do so because the income they generate from these tobacco products yearly is in the millions,” he stated.
He said a country that basically survives from taxation cannot stop the importation of goods in which they earn millions.
Some people may base their argument on human rights; Mr Camara said human rights are basically meant to protect life and freedom. He said if tobacco products are deadly what is holding the government from banning the importation of tobacco products? He inquired.
“I believe that smoking kills because I know some people who died and they are said to have died from disease caused by tobacco use, but on the other hand government gains a lot of revenue from the importation of tobacco, that is why they will keep on educating the masses on the harmful effects of tobacco usage but they will not ban its importation,” he alleged