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Campaign to ban illicit tobacco gains traction

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In this case the evidence is before our eyes. The dominant street vendors and sellers of single tobacco sticks or cigarettes all around Botswana are the most economically vulnerable in the community, women and unfortunately the children particularly young girls down to the age of 16-years.

These women and children are at the tail end of the Tobacco Industry which includes Manufacturers, Distributers and Wholesalers. Despite this, street vendors are reported to sell more volumes of cigarettes compared to Wholesalers.

Their competitive advantage being that they sell single cigarettes (or Mezanga in street lingo). A quick look around the regular street vending places such as the outside of clinics, hospitals and schools, shopping malls, tuck shops (semausu), bus ranks and road side taxi and kombi spots shows the packages of cigarettes (at times illegal cigarettes) lying on the small and sometimes makeshift tables.

The cigarettes are placed in the midst of the rest of the sellable ware including biscuits, sweets, oranges, apples, bananas, peanuts and chewing gums.  You need to take a closer look to spot the cigarette packages, almost as if they are being disguised or enveloped by the confectionary; or possibly that the seller is conscious of the fact that they are in the wrong.

Small talk with the Gaborone street vendors indicates that they are selling the cigarettes under the guise of ‘Poverty Eradication’ as do the Sex-workers. What else should they do to feed their families they throw back? What about the dangerous effect of smoking on the children they sell cigarettes to? Their main concern is today, not the future.

Single cigarettes are readily accessible and the smaller quantity means they are also more affordable compared to the full packet, giving potential customers like school-going children leverage to purchase. Advocates such as the Anti-Tobacco Network Botswana, Cancer Association of Botswana, Stop Smoking Support Group and the Ministry of Health’s Tobacco Control Unit have launched a campaign against this sale of single sticks of cigarettes.

Their main argument is that, single cigarettes make it easier for customers like school-going children to afford the lethal habit. Even the manufactures agree or have been coerced to place the warning on all cigarette packets that ‘Smoking is bad for your health’. The immediate repercussions of the sale of these single cigarettes are already tangible.

“Girls are now smoking more than boys. Young girls are really taking to smoking like it’s some kind of fashion trend. School kids are smoking a lot now. It’s a real crisis,” observes and cautions Onkemetse Ramato, the Health Officer from the Tobacco Control Unit at Ministry of Health.    

Ramato was speaking at the recent talks centered on the ‘Botswana Implementation Strategy for Protocol to Eliminate Trade on Illicit Tobacco Products’. The main attendees on 16th December 2015 were representatives from NGO’s and government sectors all aiming to eliminate trade on tobacco products; with voices raised from Ministry of Health, World Bank, World Health Organisation (WHO), BOSASNet and the Anti-Tobacco Network Botswana.

The second session involved the regulatory bodies such as the Botswana Unified Revenue Services (BURS), Ministry of Trade, Ministry of Agriculture and Office of the President.

Back in 2013/2014 an intense anti-illicit tobacco campaign was publicised with the feedback and reports aired on national television, radio and newspapers. Images of major tobacco related raids by authorities in houses, shops and streets were shown. This current concerted, aggressive and collective approach to eliminate the sale of illicit tobacco and its products is still justified if you talk to Dr. Malebogo Pusoentsi from the Ministry of Health.

She is of the opinion that in the long run, if unmonitored the effect of tobacco on users and the community will cost the nation millions of Pula. “Investment in control of Nicotine will go a long way. As a country we stand to gain in terms of the Pula benefit,” advises Dr. Pusoentsi. The doctor is of the view that if the community is aware of the ‘badness of the smoking habit’ they will also help to control its use. “Sniffing tobacco is not better. There is no safe use of Tobacco,” cautions the good doctor.

Nicotine alone causes a barrage of non-communicable diseases such as Heart disease, Cancer, Diabetes and Chronic Respiratory diseases. Dr. H. Jibril, the Deputy PS at the Ministry of Health reiterated the obvious that, “By 2020, the WHO projects that deaths caused by NCD in Africa, which contribute to poverty, burden health systems and impede the overall development, will outnumber the deaths from communicable, maternal, prenatal, and nutritional diseases.”

In view of this global challenge Botswana is said to have been one of the first countries to sign and ratify the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2003 and 2005 respectively. “Botswana automatically became a Party to this important public health treaty,” added Dr. Jibril.

Dr. Pusoentsi explains that strategies should include public awareness of the danger of smoking and a price increase for tobacco products. Currently one cigarette sells for P2.50 to P3.00 and a packet of 10 cigarettes sticks is around P18 – P25. A packet of 20 cigarettes costs in the range of P30.00.

The contraband cigarettes from Zimbabwe are said to cost P10 for a packet of 20 cigarettes. “Crushed contraband cigarettes from Zimbabwe are sold in bulk. On the streets the crushed cigarettes cost P4.00 for a 250ml cup, or P100 for a 20 litre bucket,” shares Thabo Katholo of the Anti-Tobacco Network Botswana.

Katholo explains that this smuggled Tobacco “Is cheaper and more hazardous.” Katholo also explains that women and girls in rural and peri-urban centres are at higher risk of being targeted to sell illicit tobacco.  

In Botswana the Tobacco Industry consists of one cigarette manufacturer and one cigarette distributer and numerous wholesalers. Although it is nowhere near scaling the heights of the international cigarette industry, Katholo explains that the Tobacco Industry is very vigorous in Botswana. “The Ministry of Agriculture is currently in a joint venture with Japan Tobacco Inc,” explains Katholo.  

At the end of the conference one of the conclusions was that the only way to outsmart the Tobacco industry is via information. How much volumes of cigarettes entered legally? How much levy was paid? How many cigarettes were confiscated and destroyed? The use of latest technologies including Apps to, ‘track and trace’ the use of Tobacco.

In Botswana, the levy on Tobacco and Tobacco Products was effective as of February 2014. The new Tobacco Control Bill is pending parliament approval; the expectation is that it will be effective as of July 2016.

A consultant from the World Bank, Alberto Gonima further cemented how tricky it will be to curb this illicit trade of tobacco. Once you introduce the tax or levies there will be more temptation to bring in illicit tobacco products.

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BACK ON TRACK

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BR train 0501/BD 540 would not have derailed on 10 December 2019 had necessary precautions been taken, Botswana Railways (BR) staff members told the ongoing commission of inquiry in Mahalapye.

They blame the fatal accident in which two BR employees were killed on a raft of lapses, indecisions and negligence on the part of BR management. BR Senior Traffic Controller Simon Matenje revealed that there is a WhatsApp group that discusses everything concerning the running of BR trains. He said meteorological services had posted a memo warning that there would be floods on 4th December and shared it on the WhatsApp group. “The contents of the memo and their implications were discussed,” said Matenje who revealed that the group comprises most of the senior personnel in the BR hierarchy.

He lamented that although read and discussed the contents of the memo were “not given due attention.” Above that, on 9th and 10th December many BR staff members using the south bound and north bound trains warned relevant authorities about the possibility of floods, said Matenje. He believes there was negligence of duty on the part of management because everybody was aware of the floods at Moreomabele and Palla Road. “The relevant office should have directed stoppage of the trains or the adoption of an appropriate speed limit. “The best that management did was to give warnings about the floods but fell short of prescribing a solution,” he said. Matenje, who was on leave, said that he communicated his concerns about the reports of flooding and possible solutions to no avail.

When asked who exactly had the authority to do that, Matenje explained that it was the Operation’s Manager. Matenje also decried the lapses in the organisation’s system. He said motor trollies are helpful when inspecting the railway line. “However, they have not featured for a long time,” said Matenje who feels that regular inspection of the rail is a very critical part of safety. He said BR has not held any safety workshops in a long time. Mompoloki Rutherford, a train driver also appearing before the commission conceded that trollies had not been used on the BR lines for a long time. He said some senior managers use the train to inspect the line instead of trollies. “There are only two seats in the cabin but, contrary to safety rules, sometimes they just join us in the cabin which is a breach of the safety rules,” said Rutherford. Dikabelo Nawa, a retired train driver noted that BR workers were a sad lot because of pressure always exerted on them by management.

“Drivers work under pressure. The line between Mafikeng and Plumtree is old and very bad but we were always pushed by management to arrive on time. “There is just too much pressure. I once lost time and that put me into a big problem.” He said. He is also unhappy with the undergrowth and hanging branches next to the line because they obstruct the view of the crew. He appealed to the panel to recommend the introduction of a training centre for BR staff.

Peter Mokokwe, a recently retired train driver also complained that the rail road is never inspected. In addition to that, he told the commission that, he witnessed water around Palla Road on 9th December at the same place where the derailment later took place. Mokokwe, who himself did not alert control room about the water because he had heard through radio communication that his colleagues had reported the situation to control room, is also of the view that the disaster could have been averted had the 501 crew been alerted of the water situation.

On the other hand, a train controller named Moses Sethomo says he never got the communique warning the drivers about the impending floods. “There was a clear breakdown of communication,” said Sethomo who revealed that very often, even BR assets are wrongly used. “For example, sometimes freight locomotives instead of passenger train locomotives are used to haul the passenger train and this is a safety concern,” he noted. The hearings are continuing this week. The rail services that were suspended have since been resumed.

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Youth lament slow pace towards ICPD commitments

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Young people representing Botswana at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25) in Nairobi, Kenya last week have expressed disappointment at the slow pace at which governments are moving towards achieving ICPD25 ideals.

Trevor Oahile, a youth advocate and student at the University of Botswana participated at the Nairobi Summit to highlight on Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) of men and boys.
Oahile hosts a radio show sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Don’t Get It Twisted on Yarona FM. The show deals with issues that affect boys and men. Oahile participated in a panel discussion at the Summit on the involvement of men and boys in accelerating the ICPD promise.

He is of the view that countries needs to work together to end violence that is perpetuated by harmful gender norms that are antagonistic to progress towards the ideals of the ICPD agenda. “Botswana government and private sector are still challenged to invest a lot of money into implementing their commitments,” Oahile said, adding that Comprehensive Sexual Education on the other hand has to be rolled out to every school in the country.

“We also acknowledge that it is important to avoid stereotypes that impact decisions that people make. Men and boys often avoid certain services because they are known to be for girls and women,” Oahile said. Millicent Sethaile was at the Summit as a youth ambassador from an organisation called Her Voice, which funds and offers grants to smaller organisations that advocate for SRHR in communities. In her view the summit was significant because it was an opportunity for countries including Botswana to make commitments to fulfill the unfinished business of the ICPD made 25 years ago.

“What struck me the most is that I realised that Botswana has a long way to go to achieve the commitments she set for herself.”Sethaile also observed that the four commitments including to strengthen access to family planning, the reduction of maternal deaths, reduction of Gender Based Violence, provision of quality, timely and disaggregated data are activities that were already in the pipeline and have been discussed before. “I believe we now have to come up with actionable items that we can work on so that we can effectively deal with current challenges.”
For 18 year old University student Michelle Simon, the Nairobi Summit was a reality check, an opportunity to reflect and map the way forward.

“I realised that there are so many challenges, especially in Africa concerning SRHR,” Simon said. She also realised that Botswana has a lot of catching up to do to implement the commitments of the ICPD. “I also realised that issues including youth in power were left out.” Botho Mahlunge on the other hand comes back from the Summit with a conclusion that there are a lot of predicaments that young people find themseles in across the African continent including GBV and teenage pregnancy.

Programmes need to be intensified to ensure implementation. Mahlunge is also of the view that there is minimum youth engagement on issues that affet them the most. “Young people are tired of always convening about the same issues. It’s time to see the outcomes of Summits and Conferences,” Mahlunge said. She advised the youth to also be willing to engage when the oppotunity avails itself and to take up programmes that have been set to help them. Mahlunge said that failure to educate our young people on sexuality “is the reason so many girls are getting pregnant and infected with HIV.”

She said the continued exclusion of young people in rural areas from sexual and reproductive health and rights discussion is also to blame for the prevailing state of affairs. “Young people in rural areas are completely vulnerable. They are so far removed from the little information and services available to young people in urban areas,” Mahlunge observed.

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