ATN World No Tobacco Day 2020 Speech- Prof. Bontle Mbongwe

ATN World No Tobacco Day 2020 Speech- Prof. Bontle Mbongwe

Statement by The Anti-Tobacco Network on the Commemoration of the World No Tobacco Day, 2020

Professor Bontle Mbongwe, Executive Director, Anti-Tobacco Network, Botswana

Issued:  May 31, 2020


As Botswana joins the rest of the world in commemorating this year’s World No-Tobacco Day, the Anti-Tobacco Network wishes to highlight the harm  and devastation of tobacco consumption on the youth who have become the vulnerable target of the deadly dependency on the addictive products from a shamelessly manipulative industry.

This is a sad day amid the global war on the deadly COVID 19 we tearfully acknowledge this year’s theme of Protecting youth from industry manipulation and preventing them from tobacco and nicotine use. The theme emphasizes the currently merciless focus of the industry on young people in a campaign to deviously lure and entrap the present and future generation from the health and other risks of tobacco use. On this day, we remember those we lost to tobacco and call  upon all young people to join the fight to become a tobacco-free generation. We further call upon the Government to protect children and the youth from the predatory tobacco industry by enacting laws and developing programs that will empower the youth to resist the temptation to use the deadly tobacco products.   

There is evidence that major tobacco companies are now reporting to investors that, since the advent of Heated Tobacco Products (HTPS), Electronic Nicotine Delivery System (ENDS), total sales and total numbers of users are increasing in many countries, this is a frightening prospect. Not only are HTPs and ENDS damaging to health, but they increase the potential impact on conventional smoking. After decades of effort by the tobacco control community to mark tobacco products as deadly, smoking and tobacco-related products could be renormalized.

The 2020 WNTD comes at a time when countries are racing to slow the spread of COVID-19, a disease which is more than a health crisis with the potential to create devastating social, economic and political harm that will leave deep scars globally. The threat of this pandemic has escalated serious and life-threatening health problems especially for those currently using tobacco and EXPOSED to tobacco smoke. It also comes at a time when everyday, people are losing jobs and income, with no way of knowing when normality will return. Countries such as Botswana that are so heavily dependent on tourism, have empty hotels and tourism sites. The COVID19 pandemic has highlighted and heightened the fundamental importance of health to economic progress and society. It has revealed the vulnerabilities of health care systems and the need to create strong partnerships from all sectors of the economy to protect public health for sustainable development.

Sadly, as countries are fighting COVID19 with everything they have, they also have to come to terms with the tobacco epidemic, an epidemic  the World Health Organisation (WHO) describe as one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced, killing more than 8 million people a year globally. According to WHO, 1.3 billion people use tobacco globally and 80% of these live in low- and middle-income countries.

The 2020 World No Tobacco Day, #TobaccoExposed campaign is well timed to highlight the dangerous link between tobacco use and respiratory diseases. Current scientific evidence highlights that smoking worsens outcomes for COVID-19 patients. Never has the need pay attention to tobacco use been so important. Most importantly, the #tobaccoexposed campaign exposes the tobacco industry’s evil tactics to accelerate the marketing and promotion of both old and newer tobacco products like e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products.We note that there has been an upsurge in Botswana of advertisement, especially banners posted by companies and individuals that boldly advertise and promote tobacco products in the face of COVID-19 and in full disregard of existing laws prohibiting the advertising and promotion of tobacco products in Botswana.  The adverts, in some major malls, invited young people to smoke-shops whilst the Government of Botswana urged people to keep physical distance. It is however not surprising, how anyone would expect an industry with a documented trail of deliberate employment of strategic, aggressive and well-resourced tactics to attract children and young adults to tobacco and nicotine products or, even care at the time when countries and people are battling with COVID 19? 

It is appalling how even in the middle of the COVID 19 crisis, tobacco companies have placed their profits ahead of the health of our people. We have witnessed their blatant opposition to the regulations on the importation and sale of tobacco products during these critical times. They have employed an arsenal of journalists, local allies and front groups to rile the nation up and oppose what they call “strict government regulations” on their products.

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa has recently urged countries to remain vigilant as they begin to ease confinement measures, emphasizing that “Ending a lockdown is not an event, but a process, and it’s important to have a clear view of local conditions so that informed decisions can be made about how to relax these measures.” It is on this note that ATN calls on the Government of Botswana to pay attention to the tobacco industry and its tactics as we ease the lockdown. The prohibition of tobacco and tobacco related product sales and imports by the Botswana Government is a commendable initiative because of the relationship between COVID 19 and tobacco use. Accordingly, a gradual process is required in lifting the ban so that social distancing rules are not violated by the youth who are known to sit in groups to smoke. Measures taken should be aimed at ensuring that the youth do not have easy access to tobacco products such as hubbly bubbly, usually smoked in groups and shared, therefore having the potential to spread the virus.  

ATN finally calls upon the Government to put the following in place prior to lifting the tobacco sales ban:

  1. Completely ban the sale and use of the hubbly Bubbly (Shisha) which is usually smoked in groups using shared mouth pieces that are a channel for transmission of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases including tuberculosis. As highlighted in our previous call, during such smoking sessions, it is practically impossible to maintain social distance to avoid transmission of COVID -19. It must be remembered that the sharing of tobacco products by its users pose the danger of spreading COVID-19 through contaminated saliva.  Several countries in Africa have banned sale of use of hubbly bubbly.  Along with this recommendation we call on the Government to prohibit vape, shisha and e-cigarette shops or kiosks as they attract young people to smoke
  2. Totally ban smoking in all public places. Again this is more pressing in the face of the current CPOVID-19 pandemic. The reduction of environmental tobacco smoke, both second and thirdhand will save children, workers and people with respiratory and other non-Communicable Diseases.  The ban must be enforced particularly in schools
  3. Make accessible tobacco levy funds, collected since 2014 to establish nationwide quit smoking programs.  The tobacco sales ban during the state of emergency must be accompanied by measures to assist smokers having difficulty to quit on their own. COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity to encourage the world’s smokers to quit smoking.
  4. Ban the sale of tobacco products in homes and street vendors located near schools, including positioning of tobacco products near sweets, snacks, or soft drinks.  Banning the sale of tobacco products in homes and street vendors will reduce access to tobacco products. It has been reported in the past that children took cigarettes from home to sell to their peers in schools,   
  5. Finally, in the long term, we call upon the Government to expedite the long pending comprehensive tobacco Control law that that is fully compliant with the WHO Framework Convention on tobacco control. Among others the law must have provisions for large pictorial warnings on tobacco products and bans on tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship, prohibit flavoured tobacco products given the clear evidence these products attract and addict children and young adults. These measures will protect children and young adults and health from this predatory industry.

Having said this, the Government may do all in its power to give parents the tools they need to raise their children, but parents have to be partners in protecting the children as well. Every parent in Botswana has a responsibility to talk to their children about the dangers of tobacco especially as a gateway to other hard drugs, and other things that can hurt them.

To parents, we wish to point out that children learn what they see, therefore when parents shun the use of tobacco, their children are less likely to fall into the addiction. Parents should tell their children the truth about tobacco in ways that they can relate to and mean something to them. Parents, Tell your children that the industry lies to them. Tell them how tobacco is not “cool” as it makes their breath smell, rots their teeth, hurts their sports performance, and ages them faster.

Finally As the world marks World No Tobacco Day, we all have to stop, learn and see the true nature of the tobacco industry - an industry of death, disease and poverty targeting innocent children and youth with its addictive products. As succinctly put by the World Health Organisation, “The world cannot afford another generation deceived by the lies of the tobacco industry, which pretends to promote freedom of personal choice while really ensuring eternal profits – regardless of the millions of people that pay with their life each year”.

Anti Tobacco Network