Health minister dismisses industry claims legal tobacco trade under threat by black market

BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS
Observer senior reporter

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

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Minister of Health Dr Christopher Tufton says the tobacco industry should look into investing in healthy industries in the interest of public health, as he dismissed what he termed the running argument by key players in the tobacco industry that the legal trade is under threat from the black market.

Speaking at an Observer Exchange on Monday, Dr Tufton said he is disappointed that opinions on the trade are being influenced by data from the tobacco industry itself, which uses the issue of the illicit trade to justify the argument that the Special Consumption Tax (SCT) on tobacco products is ineffective.

“Clearly the tobacco industry is going to advance data and their own research to aid their cause as to why we shouldn't have a tax,” he argued, adding that it is the data provided by the Customs Department, which should be instead referenced.

“There is an illicit trade, of course, but the real data should come from Customs. Customs in recent times has had several successes in dealing with this illegal trade — successes which are then interpreted conveniently by the tobacco trade as an indication that more illicit trade is taking place — that's not necessarily the case, that's not logical, it's that they are having more success,” he stated.

The minister pointed out that consumption in the formal trade has in fact declined, a trend which health authorities welcome, and wants to continue.

“Frankly speaking, we would like the tobacco industry to look at other healthy industries to invest in, in the interest of public health. Ultimately, consumers will have the choice but we are hoping that the choices will be too expensive for them to afford over time,” he said.

Last year, the leading marketer and distributor of cigarettes and tobacco in the island, Carreras Limited, called on the Government to review the SCT on cigarettes.

According to the company's managing director, Marcus Steele, the illegal trade had resulted in an estimated $5-billion loss in revenue to the country. The appeal came in light of the $17-per-stick tax on cigarettes, which he argued was driving up the price of cigarettes, as well as, fueling a rising illicit trade.

The Government has not budged on that proposal with the health minister emphasising on Monday that excessive tobacco consumption is among the leading causes of deadly lifestyle–related diseases.

“Public health is totally against smoking, it is impatient of debate, whether it's first hand or second-hand smoke, it ultimately will facilitate your demise in one way, shape or form.

“Beyond that is the cost to the wider society of treating lung-related ailments — they are significant, so not only is it pain and suffering on the individual, it's a huge cost to public health and by extension the society,” Dr Tufton said.

Meanwhile, he informed that persons have been cited for breaches of the 2013 Public Health (Tobacco Control) regulations which ban smoking in specified public spaces, and that comprehensive legislation is being developed to effect more stringent measures, such as restrictions on advertising.

The regulations prohibit smoking in specified public places including all enclosed and open public places, and enclosed work places, such as government buildings, health facilities and educational institutions. Also, among the banned spaces for tobacco use are those used by children, such as bus stops and transportation centres.

At the same time, he acknowledged that there has been a relaxation of enforcement of those regulations over the years.

“We need to do more…unfortunately over time, I personally have observed that there has been a relaxation in the enforcement of that law where persons light up wherever they please, in breach of the law. Quite frankly, it is making a mockery of the law more often than not,” Dr Tufton stated.

He said there is also the phenomenon of persons seemingly being more comfortable with smoking marijuana in public: “Sometimes, I get the impression that more people feel freer to light up a 'spliff' in public spaces, whether they're driving, or at a dance or party, than a cigarette and the effect is the same, or even worse. The law needs teeth to enforce what is already in place.”

Dr Tufton said the aim of the tobacco legislation that is to come, is to send a clearer signal about the ill-effects of smoking, as well as employ a more deliberate multi-agency approach to controlling public space consumption.


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