Two decades ago, it would have been hard to imagine that only eight per cent of the population would be cigarette smokers today. Back then, smoking was a normal part of everyday life.
You could smoke at work, in restaurants and bars, and on the streets. Tobacco was glamorously portrayed in the movies and on TV and advertised on billboards lining the highways.
That, however, changed when lobbies took a stand against tobacco and restrictions on indoor smoking culminated in a ban on smoking in public spaces.
These efforts led to a decline in cigarette smoking not only in Kenya, but also around the world. Tobacco companies have decided to diversify their market and it has not gone down well with lobbies.
Last month, British American Tobacco’s Managing Director Beverly Spencer-Obatoyinbo said Kenya will be introduced to tobacco-free nicotine pouches being used in other parts of the world. “It is the smoking and the burning of tobacco that creates the risks associated with cigarettes, which is why we want to introduce the pouches,” Ms Spencer said.
Lobbies have raised an alarm, saying the pouches could result in increased risk for cancer, heart disease and reproductive or developmental effects.
Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance (Ketca) protested the introduction of nicotine pouches, saying there is no adequate data to show the smokeless pouches were a less risky alternative to cigarettes.
Ketca Chairman Joel Gitali said tobacco pouches, illegal in parts of Europe, could have lower levels of some potentially harmful chemicals compared to cigarettes. He said the pouches contained higher amounts of arsenic, cadmium and nicotine. “The US Food and Drug Administration said there is not enough data to prove they are safer than cigarettes and, therefore, we call upon the government not to license these products that are a threat to public health,” he said.
“The percentage of Kenyans aged over 15 years who use tobacco products has declined from nine per cent in 2012 to eight per cent in 2017 and so these merchants of death who look for profit would do anything to get money,” he said.
Ketco National Coordinator Thomas Lindi said tobacco companies were using the introduction of alternative products in public relations campaigns to portray themselves as part of the solution to the global tobacco epidemic. “This is not true because their main business is still to sell cigarettes, which are known to kill over 30,000 Kenyans annually,” he said.
Reacting to Ketco’s remarks, Ms Spencer-Obatoyinbo said in a statement that BAT Kenya was embarking on a journey to transform its product portfolio to provide adult consumers with credible and viable alternatives to smoking. “It is understood that it is the burning of tobacco that causes the harm in cigarettes. These oral nicotine pouches do not contain any tobacco and there is no combustion. The product has also undergone rigorous ingredients and performance testing,” she said.
In Eldoret, the lack of smoking zones has posed a problem, exposing residents to secondary smoke. Some of the smokers who spoke to HealthyNation claimed they were sometimes harassed by the county askaris who sometime demanded bribes of between Sh200 and Sh500. “If only we had a smoking zone, the harassment and arrests would stop. Most people just part with money to avoid the arrests,” said a smoker who sought anonymity.
Most towns in the country are chocking from unregulated smoking due to lack of designated smoking zones or laxity in enforcement, exposing the public to health risks.
Mr Shadrack Moimet, a resident, called upon the Uasin Gishu County government to create smoking zones. “When the smokers are located their own space, then they will feel isolated and abandon the habit,” he said.
Mr David Kipchumba, another resident, called for stiffer laws and fines.
Uasin Gishu Health minister Evelyn Rotich told HealthyNation the county was drafting a bill to address the concerns. “We have been relying on laws formulated by the national government,” she said.
Ms Emma Wanyonyi, the CEO of International Institute for Legislative Affairs, said the lack of knowledge or resources on implementation of the Tobacco Act was to blame for the situation. “So far, some counties like Baringo have come up with bills, but most of these bills have not been approved and are still in the assemblies,” she said.
Mr Gitali said: “Murang'a has done very well. Impunity and laxity are the greatest obstacles flavoured with ignorance of the law by enforcement and leaders.”