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OPINION | The tobacco control bill: Defending human rights

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  • Concerned organisations have been calling for the passing of The Control of Tobacco and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill
  • This bill will protect South Africans who are involuntarily exposed to second-hand smoke
  • The legislation has been waiting to be passed since 2018

As we mark Human Rights Day in South Africa, we must consider how tobacco fundamentally violates our right to life, right to health, children’s rights, women’s rights, and our right to a healthy environment – and what should be done to protect these rights.

As partner organisations in the Protect our Next initiative, including the National Council of Smoking (NCAS), the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA (HSFSA), we have been calling for the passing of The Control of Tobacco and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill, a comprehensive piece of legislation that has been waiting to be passed since 2018. It’s time for our government to show leadership in the fight to protect our human rights.

Uniform plain packaging

The Tobacco Control Bill requires that any enclosed public area is 100% smoke-free, and will make certain outdoor public places smoke-free too, providing protection for many South Africans who are often involuntarily exposed to second-hand smoke. It removes the requirement to provide smoking areas in all enclosed public places, workplaces and on public conveyances and applies the 100% smoking ban to common areas of multi-unit residences. It further prohibits smoking in private dwellings used for commercial child care or education, and in cars carrying children under 18, rather than under 12.

The Bill introduces uniform plain packaging for all brands and pictorial warnings on all packages. Cigarette advertising at tills and the sale of cigarettes through vending machines will be prohibited. Importantly, the Bill also includes the regulation of e-cigarettes and when passed, e-cigarettes will finally be regulated.

As Andreas Schmidt argues in his paper Is there a human right to tobacco control, “Tobacco is among the deadliest public health threats worldwide and its health impacts so severe that humans should have a claim against their governments to protect them against the harms of tobacco. If human rights are meant to protect fundamental human interests – and life and health clearly rank among them – we might conclude that individuals should have a human right to be covered by tobacco control, given that tobacco threatens the health and life of so many people.”

Violation of consumer rights

Schmidt further argues how concerns against tobacco control can in fact speak to the need for stronger tobacco control, including claims that tobacco control interferes with freedom of choice, property rights and freedom of expression. If a person’s freedom matters now, their future freedom should also matter, says Schmidt. “If a young person takes up smoking, they might develop a strong addiction and, as a result, their future health, life expectancy and expected disposable income will be drastically reduced. As a result, their expected future freedom is drastically reduced.”

Research shows about seven in 10 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 and that also create quit-friendly environments, safeguard freedom. Tobacco products are marketed in ways that grossly violate consumer rights to be adequately informed of health hazards, and to make choices about risk. The Tobacco Control Bill upholds the right of access to correct information, freedom of choice and stamps out misleading promotion.

Tobacco control could reduce the power tobacco companies have to infringe on the rights of vulnerable populations, such as children, smokers of lower socioeconomic status and citizens in low-income countries. “Human rights legislation might help curb Big Tobacco’s power to shape people’s environments in deleterious ways. Particularly for people living in low-income countries with weaker public health governance – and other vulnerable groups like children – a human rights approach should be empowering,” says Schmidt.

A critical step

The participants in the 17th World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Cape Town committed to promoting and protecting public health and human rights in relation to the tobacco epidemic, agreeing that the manufacture, marketing and sale of tobacco are incompatible with the human right to health.

South Africa, as a signatory to the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), is in fact obligated to take action. Passing South Africa’s Tobacco Control Bill is a critical step to defend our nation’s right to health and interrelated rights.

Sharon Nyatsanza (PhD) is the Project & Communications Manager at NCAS

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