The smoking ban and its likely political implications

MARK WIGNALL

Sunday, July 21, 2013

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I have a friend who does work for me around the yard. He is 66 years old, has scoliosis, and he is almost sightless in one eye.

Every time the poor man visits the Kingston Public Hospital and is given a date for the operation to 'scrape his eyes', the date is put off. The cruel thing about it is that the last time he visited to do the planned operation, he had to wait from seven in the morning till six in the evening to be told that he should come back on a date towards the end of July. He was also told that he would need a biometry which would cost $5,000. I am helping him with that.

With all of those health impediments, I have yet to meet a youngster who is as meticulous as he is with gardening. His favourite saying is, 'Is not what yu do, is how yu do it.'

Minister of Health Dr Fenton Ferguson who has taken his...

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The reality is, whenever the economy is at a standstill or, as it was under the JLP, raring to go but not actually moving, the options for economic survival for the poorest are severely limited. McKenzie had his noble ideas and ideals, but the tough truth at street level was that limiting the economic option from an already limited economic space would always play out at the polls come the day of voting.

The ganja smoker may get a free pass

The minister has said that Section 14 of the Public Health Act gives him the power to ban smoking in defined areas, while the Health and Allied Professions and Services Act of 2011 gave him the power to increase penalties for breaches under the ban, from the maximum $50,000 stated in Section 15 of the PHA to the $1 million being imposed under the ban.

This is where the man at street level becomes confused. If a man plants a few rows of tobacco in his backyard, he knows that the police cannot raid his place and arrest him. Another man knows that he can go to the shop or bar to purchase cigarettes because it is a legal product.

If a man stands outside a bar and smokes a cigarette, he cannot be arrested.

Should another man decide that he is going to boost his meagre income by growing in his backyard 10 ganja plants, he has to face up to two risks- the praedial thief and the police. He can be arrested and fined or imprisoned. The young man who decides to smoke a spliff on a bench just outside a bar can be arrested. He is likely to be fined $100.

Now let me get this into perspective. The smoking of cigarettes, a legal substance, in public places can attract a fine on say, the bar owner, of $1 million. The smoking of ganja, an illegal substance, anywhere, will attract a fine of maximum a few hundred dollars. Something is not adding up.

I gave up smoking in 1976, and most sensible people know the dangers of cigarette smoking. That said, there are many in the population who will continue to smoke and want to smoke. We know, of course, that one human being should never impose his bad habits on another, so I can easily appreciate that if a person sits in a bar sipping his beer, he should not be subjected to the smoke coming from the smokers' cigarettes. That is only fair, but there are other realities.

From a slow economy
to a dead one

If it could be said that when Mayor McKenzie was taking a hard line on street vending when the JLP was in power, the economy during those times was slow, it doesn't require a study of quantum mechanics to determine that the economy is in a much worse situation under the PNP.

To the poor man or woman who refuses to roll over and play dead, the options of street-side vending and renting a bar are quite popular ones. The street-side vendor will sell, among many other things, cigarettes and ganja, items that move very fast. The bar owner will of course sell his distilled spirits and beer and cigarettes.

Ask that bar owner what item moves fastest and he will tell you cigarettes. That is just a fact.

Each day that the bar owner opens his bar to sell his rum, beer and cigarettes, that day represents to him another day that he or she and the family members are saved from starvation.

The man who walks into a bar to buy a drink of rum and a cigarette is likely to be lucky to 'secure' one or two days' work for the week.

Now of course there will be the uptown middle-class residents who believe that this man needs to be saved from himself, and the choice that needs to be made for him is one hatched in an uptown, gated community where the well-heeled occupants are likely to be ingesting cocaine and using ganja behind closed doors.

These do-gooders have no idea that bars are places where the poor man goes for his 'free counselling.' At about $100 for a drink of rum and probably $30 for a cigarette, he is seeking something to make his day more bearable. Many times, he is owed money by someone from uptown but he has to keep himself sane, seated there sipping and smoking while he clutches the scandal bag holding a few pounds of flour and chicken back.

Minister Fenton Ferguson, in his noble crusade, wants to save that man from himself, but the government, of which he is an integral part, cannot provide an economic climate that would allow that man to have a better day, knowing that he has a job to go to tomorrow.

Why does the minister not display the same level of proactivity in ensuring that my gardener friend doesn't have to wait 12 hours at the hospital only to be told to return in a month while his sight fades even further? Has the minister seen the conditions at many of the health centres across the island?

Is the minister aware that young children diagnosed with complications of the heart are just waiting to die because their parents cannot afford the costs associated with the procedures leading up to the operation?

The poor single mothers and little old ladies who sell at street-side stalls are beginning to see the fastest-selling product - cigarettes - disappear. When these same mothers and grandmothers visit the health centres, they are forced to wait an eternity and accept the discourtesies usually heaped on them.

In a dead economy, the PNP needs the cash flow from the tax on cigarettes to ensure that the stringencies imposed on us by the IMF are adhered to. In an economy that appears as if there is no space for the voiceless, powerless poor, who will speak on behalf of them as their already meagre incomes begin to shrink?

Has the JLP sensed the delicacy of the moment?

JLP MP']s Delroy Chuck and Everald Warmington are, I think, on the right track in getting the minister to agree with them that some amount of untidiness in instituting the smoking ban exists.

Nothing has been gazetted and so no one really knows the full details of the smoking ban. Chuck is quite correct in urging the minister to delay the ban until all the details are in.

The opposition JLP may not be entirely altruistic, but which political party ever is? The matter has serious and important political elements and it has the potential to blow up in the face of the PNP.

However detrimental it is to the health of the adult individual, as long as cigarettes are legal and people desire it, they should be allowed to smoke.

I support the idea, as I stated earlier that another man's smoke should not be my smoke too if I choose not to smoke. I believe that people like Chuck and Warmington know that a very high percentage of patrons of bars are also smokers. Indeed, inside some bars, it may be close to one hundred percent.

A very unpalatable political fact is that a lot of those who have probably urged the health minister to accelerate the smoking ban are well-heeled, uptown Jamaicans who do not visit bars. They live in a Jamaica that is as distant from the reality as the Earth is from the moon.

They pontificate from the standpoint that they know what is good for the 'little man.' The irony is, these people are more likely to support the JLP if they do go out
to vote!

Both the prime minister and the cabinet need to recognise that there are political implications and, at the present time, all the JLP has to do is make it appear that they stand on the side of a delay of the smoking ban, if not an outright suspension.

Most reasonable people, I believe, would agree that there ought to be smoking-free areas. However, at street level where the poorest of those in the economy survive by selling cigarettes and the 'little man' smokes because he has no widescreen TV and fancy music set to light up his life at home, many of us are missing the social elements at play.

We are struggling in probably the worst economy that there has ever been in the country. Certainly some balance could be struck between Dr Ferguson's need to see the ban instituted and the economic realities at the bottom of the economy.

Cigarettes are still legal, but the health minister is acting as if the product has been declared illegal. If it has, I am very much unaware of it.

If the PNP wants to lose the next elections they are right on track in killing the little that if left of the economy, especially where we are not seeing any economic alternatives.

observemark@gmail.com

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