The best and the worst of times

Media Corner

with Clare Forrester

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

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YOU simply have to hand it to the minister of health Dr Fenton Ferguson; he certainly has defied the odds previously stacked against bringing to reality the legislation against smoking in public places, which came into effect on Monday, July 15. This has been no easy achievement, and Minister Ferguson, whom I have never met in person, deserves full credit. Sure he has had the support of a strong lobby, including the formidable Heart Foundation of Jamaica, but the anti-smoking lobby has been strong long before Ferguson stepped into the saddle and displayed the commitment to bring the legislation to reality. Respect due, Dr Ferguson.


Interestingly, I do believe that, over the years, the ministers from both political sides were usually in support of the ban but just didn't seem able or brave enough to pull it off. I remember very well the stridency with which Caribbean Heads of Government, including then Prime Minister Bruce Golding, declared war against Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) at a summit in Port of Spain on September 15, 2007. That summit was the first overseas meeting in which Prime Minister Golding participated accompanied by his Minister of Health Rudyard Spencer. The proceedings concluded with a 15-point declaration against NCDs, central to which was the immediate enactment of legislation to limit or eliminate smoking in public places. The lobby against smoking was underlined by substantial evidence that it was the sole preventable risk-behaviour leading to certain types of NCDs, notably cancer. The summit was not the first time that a health minister was exposed to this type of lobby against smoking, but it certainly was the first in which it had the backing of nearly every prime minister in the region. After 2007, the region waited and waited before Barbados and Trinidad eventually lived up to that commitment. For a while it did not seem likely that Jamaica would come to the party. Hence, Monday was indeed a day of celebration for non-smoking advocates across the country who, it was reported, took to the streets in praise of the ban.


I have no doubt that previous ministers were sincere in their intention to substantially reduce or eliminate smoking, which has long contributed substantially to the country's health budget. As the Heart Foundation of Jamaica said in a statement commending the minister and his team: "This has been a long, hard road since Jamaica signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. We commend the minister of health for his principled and single-minded stance to bring this regulation into being."


Naturally, the critics will not immediately, nor entirely go away. The comment reported on Monday by a lobbyist for the cigarette manufacturers was that the roll-out had been untidy. Others have already complained that the ban represents a restriction on people's freedom to smoke. In fact, Carreras spokesman Christopher Brown was further quoted in a release published on Monday that the manufacturers were not sufficiently apprised of the legislation. However, this has been basically refuted by the Health Ministry's Corporate Communication Officer Neville Graham who contended that position has been the subscript of Mr Brown's criticisms from the very beginning, even within the first hour of the minister's announcement. Brown has said that the company supports the legislation, but they were particularly concerned, among other things, that there are no details of the regulations and insufficient public education to date.


Hopefully, such concerns are by now allayed, as I am assured by Graham that multi-coloured hard copies of the legislation were disseminated on Monday and soft copies would shortly follow for wide and easy access. The printed legislation contains all the details for which the companies had been calling. The legislation also includes the guidelines for printing the required warning signs on cigarette boxes.


Criticisms like those referred to, however, are not new. These were comprehensively addressed by the World Bank in its ongoing poverty-reduction programme, drawing on experiences of countries that signed on to the international WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which went into force in 2005. A major contention of anti-tobacco lobbyists is that smoking imposes costs on non-smokers in more ways than one. The evident costs include health damage, nuisance and irritation from exposure to smoking, and additional laundry and air-freshener expenses. In addition, smokers may impose financial health care costs on others.


Another of the more compelling criticisms against this type of legislation, also addressed by the World Bank, is that it will lead to substantial reduction and/or loss of revenue. Basing its response on information from 'best practice' sources, the World Bank contends that such successful control policies will lead to only a slow decline in global tobacco use (which is projected to stay high for several decades). The resulting need for downsizing is projected to be far less dramatic than many other industries have had to face. Furthermore, money not spent on tobacco will be spent on other goods, generating alternative employment. Studies for this report show that most countries would see no net job losses and that a few would see net gains if consumption fell.


There is little doubt that the arguments for and against will persist, but with the passing of this piece of legislation, the country has struck a decisive blow for health and by extension for real national development.


Defamation Act


As speculated in my previous column, the Defamation Act was met with limited opposition in the Senate last week. Based on the newspaper report, the amended Act passed despite a declaration from one senator that he "was not enthusiastic about the Bill". That senator presumably was Lambert Brown who, although nothing in the story suggests his opposition to the actual Bill, quotes him as saying that he did not agree with the rush to pass the law while other issues such as rules on occupational health and safety continue to languish. However, that same news report indicates that Opposition Senator Kamina Johnson-Smith, unlike Senator Brown, outlined several gaps in the legislation. Presumably one of which was reflected in a clause which requires parties to try to settle their dispute outside the court by allowing the offending party to settle with the complainant. As most of us were not in the House, it would have been helpful if the news report clarified the Senator's reservations regarding this clause.


Also of note was the call by the Minister responsible for Information Sandrea Falconer in her contribution to the debate, for the creation of a media complaints council to, presumably among other things, accommodate persons whose reputations have been damaged by media publications. The information minister, herself a trained journalist, seems in concert with the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) with this position and against that of the Media Association of Jamaica, as elsewhere it was reported that the Gleaner contends that not only does the media reserve to right to regulate itself, but that any such responsibility should be left to the respective media house. This is similar to complaining to the police about abuses by their own members.


Athletics and Netball


The other good news is the performance of Jamaica's team at the recent World Youth Games at which we won the most gold medals. This was a tremendous achievement. So, too, that of our under-21 netballers who decisively won their two consecutive encounters against England. This good news from netball followed on the heels of the announcement that star shooter Jhaniele Fowler was named the 2013 Most Valuable Player (MVP) in her debut season in the Australia/New Zealand Netball League (ANZ). Fowler made a clean sweep of the top awards, also taking the ANZ Championships' Best New Talent prize and being named as Goal Shooter for the 2013 All-Star team.


Regrettably all the above good news was clouded by yet another failed drug test, only this time involving not one or two athletes, but all of five, including some of our finest.


Hopefully, this too will pass.


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