Feature Article: Tobacco control in South Africa, the FCTC and lessons from other countries

The WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) came into force in February, 2005. South Africa ratified the treaty in 2005 and committed to implementing a number of measures to control tobacco use. Governments are required to periodically report to the WHO about their progress in implementing the FCTC. Although the Framework Convention is a treaty between national governments, there are no sanctions when the obligations of the Convention are not met.

Currently, over 170 countries are party to the WHOs FCTC. Some developed countries, such as the United States and Switzerland, have chosen not to ratify the agreement. Others, such as the Netherlands, are choosing to ignore a majority (8 out of 14) of the FCTC “obligations”.

For example, in 2010, the Dutch government took the decision to voluntarily relax restrictions on tobacco control. The Dutch government holds the position that smoking is a personal choice and it is not a job of government to protect the health of its citizens or to help people make healthy choices. According to an FCTC Shadow Report on Dutch tobacco control, “The present Dutch government sees tobacco control as the most patronizing form of policymaking [and the Dutch government feels that they] should not be a nanny to its citizens”.

The Dutch government banned smoking in workplaces and public venues before ratifying the FCTC agreement and the ban was extended to the hospitality industry in 2008. However, in 2011 an exemption to this ban was introduced, allowing smoking in small bars. The government also cut its funding of mass media educational campaigns for tobacco control completely in 2011. The Dutch Minister of Health stated that because she was able to stop smoking without treatment and because smokers save money when they stop smoking, smokers should pay for their own treatment. The Dutch government also opposes the FCTC’s plain packaging requirements, in spite of the fact thatthe Netherlands wasactuallythe first EU country to introduce health warnings in 2002.

Voters in Switzerland have also rejected a total ban on smoking in enclosed public places. The result of this vote means that hotels, restaurants and bars are free to establish rooms to cater for smokers. Perhaps unsurprisingly the canton of Geneva, where the WHO is headquartered, voted slightly in favour of the ban. The results from the country's other 25 cantons showed an overwhelming majority and rejected a full ban.

South Africans must remember that the WHO are unelected bureaucrats and are in no position to dictate to sovereign nations what they should and should not do. The most worrying concern is the blatant infringement on private property rights. There is no obligation for members of the public to enter into private establishments such as bars, hotels and restaurants, which the Department of Health mistakenly views as “public places”. Before the Department of Health forced private businesses to introduce measures at great expense to separate smokers from non-smokers, many private establishments that could afford to do so, introduced measures to make their customers more comfortable and voluntarily created dedicated areas to cater for smokers and non-smokers. Others chose not to and this should have been their prerogative. This is a remarkable feature of the capitalist system – if there is a need, the market will fill it. Now the targeted aim of the Department of Health is to ban smoking in all “public places”  

South Africans, like the Swiss, Dutch and citizens of other countries that have stood up to these draconian intrusions on private life, must realise that this is just the first bite to satisfy an insatiable government appetite to control all aspects of our lives. For many years, the majority of South Africans fought hard to free themselves from an overbearing state. They should think hard before they allow today’s government to pass legislation on soft targets such as tobacco and alcohol. Already, the Department of Health has targeted other lifestyle choices that affect us all and trespass on our individual rights such as the consumption of fatty foods and salt as well as how active we choose to be.

Freedom loving South Africans should be wary of this slow erosion of our right to make our own life choices. If we make no objection, we will all have to face the consequences and once again live according to how we are told to live our lives, what foods we are permitted to eat and how much physical activity we are obliged to undertake.

Source: This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.


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