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Sunday, 07 April 2024 14:43

World Health Day 2024 – Is government doing enough to protect our right to health?

By Lehlohonolo Lehana.

The theme for World Health Day 2024 on 7 April is 'My health, my right'. When it comes to tobacco, is our government doing enough to champion our right to health and clean air?  South Africa's health, research and community organisations united through the Protect our Next initiative are advocating for the urgent passing of the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill. They question why public consultations necessary for the Bill's progression to law were not completed by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee before parliamentary recess ahead of elections in May, although there has been ample time. 

"Passing this Bill is a critical step to defend our nation's right to health and interrelated rights.  Strong tobacco control policy is also central to addressing the NCD burden and will support sustainable implementation of South Africa’s National Health Insurance," says Dr Sharon Nyatsanza from the National Council Against Smoking. "Including 2024, we've seen six World Health Days since this Bill first closed for public consultations in 2018. These delays in the passage of the Tobacco Control Bill only favour the tobacco industry, not the public health of South Africa.

Finally approved to go to Cabinet in 2022, the comprehensive Tobacco Control Bill still awaits Parliament's final approval, but has stalled at the Public Consultation process. Public consultations were carried out in seven of the nine provinces by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health. Two provinces were yet to complete this crucial step – KwaZulu Natal and the Northern Cape.

"Thes consultations did not take place, without explanation," says Protect our Next convenor Zanele Mthembu. "The fact that they were not concluded defeats the purpose of these hearings. People were ready to participate."

Consultations must be completed for the Bill to pass into the next phase of oral submissions in parliament, deliberation and then going to the National Assembly for approval. As they were not concluded before parliamentary recess, with elections in May, the future of the Bill will be left up to the next administration's discretion.

"It is concerning that the very same government who passed the constitution which protects our rights to health is stalling on this Bill. In an environment where there is strong tobacco industry interference, we must question why!" says Mthembu.  

Tobacco use directly infringes on our rights to life, health, the rights of children and women, and our right to a healthy environment. It is vital for the public to understand how the new Bill better protects these rights, explains Nyatsanza.

Measures in the Tobacco Control Bill that protect our right to health

The proposed Bill stipulates that all enclosed public spaces must be 100% smoke-free, extending this provision to certain outdoor public spaces as well. This guarantees protection for all South Africans who have chosen not to smoke but are often unwillingly exposed to harmful second-hand smoke. The Bill also introduces uniform plain packaging for all brands and graphic warnings on all packages.

While tobacco advertising and sponsorship are already illegal, the new Bill provides additional protection against deceptive marketing. The Bill ensures consumer rights are not violated, promoting awareness of health risks and protecting people from misleading advertising.

The sale of cigarettes through vending machines and advertising at tills will be banned, as these serve as a form of display advertising accessible to all ages.

"Research shows about seven in ten people who smoke want to quit, and fail to do so. They do not willingly continue to smoke, they are addicted. Policies that prevent the initiation of smoking by young people, protect those who do not smoke and create quit-friendly environments, safeguard our rights to health and freedom," says Professor Lekan Ayo-Yusuf, Director of the National Council Against Smoking (NCAS) and the Head of the School of Health Systems and Public Health at the University of Pretoria. 

Importantly, the Bill brings e-cigarettes under regulation, Ayo-Yusuf explains. Evidence has linked the use of e-cigarettes to serious health conditions such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, chest pains, and mouth ulcers.  “The top four e-cigarette manufacturers are major tobacco manufacturers, showing an industry continuing to maximise profits from both new and old products at the expense of public health and directly marketing to a new, youthful audience under the disguise of offering them a less harmful product. Failure to properly regulate e-cigarettes ignores the harmful effects of these products, and is a failure to protect our rights."

Lesego Mateme of the South African Tobacco Free Youth Forum (SATFTYF) says, "We have a right to health, and the new Bill defends this right and related rights. It's high time we stand united against the forces trying to undermine it. Let's amplify our voices and ensure the new bill that defends our right to health becomes law."

To learn more and show your support, visit www.protectournext.co.za or follow @protectournext.