MAY 31 marked the international World No Tobacco Day, under the theme 'Tobacco Industry Interference'.
This theme was carefully arrived at by the World Health Organisation (WHO), in recognisance of the fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry and public policy interests.
This day is dedicated to raise public awareness on the dangers of tobacco consumption, with an objective to protect future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental, and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke.
According to WHO, tobacco consumption is largely responsible for causing up to about five million deaths annually, a figure that is clearly higher than other causes of mortality such as tuberculosis, HIV and AIDS and malaria all combined.
Further warnings from WHO indicate that fact that tobacco remains the single most preventable cause of death in the world, and unless urgent action is taken, tobacco consumption could cause up to about one billion deaths this century.
Statistics from the Ministry of Health indicate that the smoking population in Zambia stands at about 10 per cent of youths who smoke, with 29 per cent adult males, and 2 per cent of females being active smokers.
However, there is a growing epic battle between the good and the bad, the protection of public heath and the pursuit of wealth and benefits of trade from a vibrant tobacco industry.
While the health activists have mounted campaigns on the public health risks associated with active tobacco smoking and inhalation (passive smoking), major players in the tobacco industry have also got their own counter arguments on why the industry should continue operating.
In a society such as Zambia, where unemployment levels are very high, the industry offers employment and a source of livelihoods to a substantial number of people working there.
The tobacco industry also contributes to the country's gross domestic product (GDP) and as well Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).
Tobacco also forms one of the country's largest international exports, which world bodies such as the United Nations World Trade Organisation (UNWTO) and regional bodies such as the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) will support in order to promote regional and global trade and integration.
This is what makes it very difficult for the Government to take a precise stance on weather or not to implement stringent tobacco control measures.
Ministry of Health national tobacco control focal point person John Mayeya explains that Zambia does not currently have a comprehensive tobacco control framework, except for a bill which is currently in circulation.
Instead, the Ministry of Local Government is enforcing the no public smoking statutory instrument (S.I) in enclosed places such as bars, restaurants. However, limited human resources in the ministry have negatively affected the effective enforcement of this SI.
Apart from this, Zambia is one of the 175 countries that have ratified the Global Health Treaty and the WHO Framework Convention of Tobacco Control (FCTC), in June 2008 tobacco consumption be it active smoking or passive inhalation, poses health risks such as cancers of the throat, lungs, and other non-communicable ailments.
This is of course apart from the evidence of vast damage of tobacco products on the natural environment.
The protection of public health policy from the interference by the tobacco industry is therefore a cornerstone to the frame work convention and vital for its implementation.
However, even countries with the best of will and intentions, face obstacles.
Unquestionably, the biggest obstacle is fierce opposition from the tobacco industry. A handful of powerful corporations are bent on spreading disease and death around the world.
Other schools of thought may argue that this pursuit of wealth is ruthless, with no regard for the damage that tobacco products cause to health.
In Zambia, Government is called upon as a party to the FCTC, to ensure effective and comprehensive measures to protect tobacco control from commercial and other vested interest of tobacco industry in accordance with article 5.3 of the FCTC.
In line with this, pressure is mounting from civil society organisations and other interest groups to implore the Government not to embrace or invest in the tobacco industry, that the Government should not partner with the tobacco sector or indeed accept the industry's corporate social responsibilities, which they strongly believe are merely a marketing strategy for tobacco products.
In order to do this, the Government needs to embark on the following measures such as refusal to treat tobacco corporations as stakeholders in public health policy, and to refuse to invest in the tobacco industry.
One such interest group is the Zambia Association for Consumers (ZACA), whose executive director Muyunda Ililonga explains that the tobacco industry has vast financial resources, lawyers and lobbyists, who have no values beyond the profit motive.
Mr Ilionga explains that big tobacco players are throwing resources and power into efforts to defeat or delay legislation around the world.
ZACA is also pressing demands that in order to domesticate the FCTC, there is need to ensure that the Zambian Government enacts a comprehensive, FCTC tobacco control law without further delay.
In addition, the civil society feels that the Government should instead observe the following; non partnership, non-binding or non-enforceable agreements between tobacco industry drafted legislation or policy, or voluntary codes as substitutes for legally enforceable measures.
They also believe that there should be no investment by Government or public officials in the tobacco industry, and that no tobacco industry representation on Government tobacco control bodies of FCTC delegations.
But while all these efforts are being mounted by health activists, civil society and interest groups who are concerned with the negative effects and health risks of tobacco consumption, lawsuits are also being filed to intimidate countries from enacting effective legislation.
Some countries are already under undue threats of litigations by tobacco industry players and stakeholders for their intentions to comply with the Global Health Treaty and the WHO FCTC to take strong measures against tobacco.
Efforts by some countries such as Australia to implement pictorial and graphic warnings on tobacco product packages are also being fought by the industry.
Mr Mayeya explains that in order for public health risks which result from tobacco smoking to be effectively implemented, it is imperative upon the Government to decide on what takes precedence.
"Line ministries such as Ministry of Health, Ministry of Local Government, Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Commerce, Trade and Industry all require a unanimous consensus of what take precedent between the public health risks associated with tobacco consumption, against the trade benefits of a vibrant tobacco industry," he explained.
As the WHO FCTC implementation moves forward and takes shape, the tobacco industry is also implementing counter measures to stop the success of the treaty.
For example, on issue of pictorial health warnings on packages of tobacco, the industry recently adopted the tactic of suing countries under bilateral investment treaties, claiming that the warnings impinge the companies' attempts to use their legally-registered brands.
There are already high-profile legal actions targeting Uruguay, Norway, Australia, and Turkey for wishing to introduce tough tobacco control measures.
It has been noted that numerous other countries are being subjected to the same kind of aggressive scare tactics, especially those that cannot bear the financial burden of this kind of litigation.
Some of the interferences to the tobacco industry in Zambia include vibrant civil society on Tobacco Control, a network of Journalists for Tobacco Control, a Draft Comprehensive Tobacco Products Control Bill-Circulating and receiving comments from line ministries, and the formation of the Zambia Tobacco Control Campaign.
Other factors include the enactment of Smoke -Free Laws the development of smoke free law enforcement guidelines, which has seen the rise in the number of visible signs displayed in bars, restaurants and other public places, spelling out the dangers of smoking tobacco.
The WHO FCTC was developed as a global regulatory framework to cope with the problem of the use and spread of tobacco related illnesses worldwide.
It urges governments to give priority to protect public health, while on the other hand UNWTO regulations encourage governments to avoid taking health related measures that would arbitrarily or unjustifiably discriminate against trade.
International Instruments on Consumer Protection define unfair trading practices as one that misleads consumers, compromises the standards of honesty and good faith which places pressure on consumers by use of harassment or coercion, and thereby distorts the purchasing decisions of consumers.
The means to stop the tobacco epidemic are clear. Countries can save the lives of their citizens by implementing the measure contained in the first Global Health Treaty, WHO FCTC.
It is apparent that policy makers have to draw a distinct line between public health priorities, and protection of economic trade benefits in relation to the tobacco sector.
It is hoped that after taking into consideration all of the public health concerns and the trade benefits, the Zambian Government will sooner than later come up with a clear road map as regards conflicts surrounding tobacco.