New Vision (Kampala)

22 January 2013

Uganda: Is Smoking in Public Still Illegal?

IN February 2004, Uganda banned smoking in public places. This followed the December 2002 High Court declaration that smoking in public places was a violation of non-smokers' constitutional rights to life and to a clean and healthy environment.

The perpetuators were to pay a fine of sh20,000 and hotel owners, who allowed customers to smoke on their premises, would pay sh300,000. However, 10 years down the road what do we see?

In places like Shoprite Lugogo - any time of the day - be sure to find men and women smoking at Good African Coffee Restaurant.

The same happens at Speke Resert Munyonyo as well as Kabalagala and other places in Kampala. Indeed, it happens in many bars, where one finds a number of people puffing at their cigars not caring that they are infringing on other people's rights.

The Police

This is not to say there are no law enforcers in these public places. At Shoprite Lugogo, Police officers move around throughout the day, but they never arrest anybody, even when they pass by him/her smoking.

In fact, it is not rare to run into a driver talking himself out of a traffic offence while puffing at his cigarette and all the traffic officer is pinning them down for is the traffic offence.

Tobacco deaths

According to Dr. Joaquim Saweka, the World Health Organisation (WHO) country representative, tobacco or smoking has caused the deaths of about six million people worldwide.

"It also affects second-hand smokers (non-smokers who are exposed to tobacco through people who smoke in public), killing about 600,000 of them. This figure translates to about 13,000 deaths daily and one death in every six seconds," says Saweka.

Dr. Sheila Ndyanabangi, the officer in charge of mental health at the Ministry of Health, says apart from heavily bed-riding its victims and at times killing them, the cost of treating tobacco-related illnesses is too high.

"Tobacco does not have any advantage," Ndyanabangi says.

Why dormant law?

The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) deputy executive director, Sawula Musoke, says the problem is largely about sensitisation.

"We have tried to enforce this ruling, but you can tell that many people don't know about it, including the Police, who should be enforcing it. Many people don't know they have a right to ask whoever is smoking in their midst to stop or go and smoke from an isolated place," he says.

Joshua Amanyire, a bodaboda cyclist, wonders: "At times you get a customer, but as soon as you start the motorcycle, the man lights a cigarette and all the way he is puffing smoke into the back of your head. How do you ask him to stop?"

NEMA efforts

Musoke says: "As NEMA, there is a lot we have done. If you go to some hotels, many of them have the 'no smoking' sign and people don't smoke in there. Others have rooms cordoned off for smoking."

He adds: "We have tried, but it should be everyone's duty to stop smoking in public places."

Police speak out

However, Taire Idwege, the environment Police boss, admits they face a challenge while enforcing the ban on smoking in public places because their efforts are not backed by the law.

He says: "The anti-tobacco Bill is still in a draft form. We are waiting for it to be passed by Parliament and finally assented into a law by the President before it is fully implemented."

Way forward

That notwithstanding, Ndyanabangi maintains the formulations drafted by NEMA are weak and need to be strengthened and disseminated.

"We need a stronger policy," she says, adding: "NEMA's formulated a weak guideline. They didn't consult with Parliament or the public and as a result the policy wasn't disseminated."

"Many people don't know what to do in case they interface with someone smoking in a public place," Ndyanabangi says.

She also suggests that heftier fines need to be levied on culprits.

"Imagine sh20,000 or even sh300,000 to a hotel owner. If someone can afford a packet of Dunhill cigarettes, what is a fine of sh20,000 to him? Very minimal. Hotel owners who allow customers to smoke in the premises should have their licences revoked," she says.

Ndyanabangi says they are working on a new comprehensive Tobacco Control Bill in which they will look at increasing the fine so it can scare away people from smoking in public places.

In this Bill, Ndyanabangi says, they will also disagree with the NEMA guideline of cordoning off rooms in public places specifically for people to smoke in.

"There should be no smoking in public places at all. How do you say you can build a room and prevent smoke from escaping? It is impossible," she says, adding: "People who want to smoke should go to places isolated from the public where they can smoke without affecting anybody."

She hopes the contents of the Bill will be presented to Parliament when it resumes next month.

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