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Defending human rights: the Tobacco Control Bill

Publish Date:

March 21, 2023

Determined to see updated tobacco control legislation passed this year, South Africa’s health organisations say it’s time for our government to protect our human rights by strengthening the tobacco laws that defend them.

“As we mark Human Rights Day in South Africa on 21 March, we must consider how tobacco fundamentally violates our right to life, right to health, children’s rights, women’s rights, and our right to a healthy environment – and what should be done to protect these rights,” says Prof. Lekan Ayo-Yusuf, Director of the National Council Against Smoking (NCAS) and the Head of the School of Health Systems and Public Health at the University of Pretoria. 

Ayo-Yusuf says that as tobacco is proven to be among the deadliest public health threats worldwide and its health impacts are so severe, people should insist that laws are in place to protect them against the harms of tobacco as part of their human rights.  “Legislation should protect and uphold fundamental human rights. Individuals have a right to be protected by the regulation of tobacco and related products, given what we now know about tobacco use and how it threatens the health and life of so many people, as well as the dangers of related products. ”

Partner organisations in the Protect our Next initiative, including the National Council of Smoking (NCAS), the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the South African Tobacco Free Youth Forum (SATFYF) have been calling for the passing of the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill, a comprehensive piece of legislation that is now in parliament.

“Passing South Africa’s Tobacco Control Bill is a critical step to defend our nation’s right to health and interrelated rights,” says Ayo-Yusuf.  “As a signatory to the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), South Africa should be taking urgent action.”  

Key measures in the Bill

The Bill requires that any enclosed public area is 100% smoke-free, and will make certain outdoor public places smoke-free too, providing protection for many South Africans who have chosen not to smoke but are often involuntarily exposed to dangerous second-hand smoke. It removes the requirement to provide smoking areas in all enclosed public places, workplaces and on public conveyances and applies the 100% smoking ban to common areas of multi-unit residences. It further prohibits smoking in private dwellings used for commercial child care or education, and in cars carrying children under 18, rather than under 12.

“Research shows about seven in ten people who smoke want to quit, and fail to do so. They do not willingly continue to smoke, they are addicted. Policies that prevent the initiation of smoking by young people, protect those who do not smoke and create quit-friendly environments, safeguard our rights to health and freedom,” says Ayo-Yusuf.  

The first Global Adult Tobacco Survey conducted in South Africa (GATS-SA) results further show that the Bill has strong public support for 100% smoke-free public places. “88.4%, or nine out of ten adults support a ban on smoking in indoor workplaces and public places, which confirms that people are conscious of their right to an environment that is not harmful to health,” says Ayo-Yusuf.

The Bill introduces uniform plain packaging for all brands and pictorial warnings on all packages.

While advertising tobacco and tobacco sponsorship is already illegal, measures in the new Bill better protect people against marketing and misleading claims, according to Ayo-Yusuf. “Tobacco and related products are marketed in ways that violate consumer rights to be well informed of health hazards. The Tobacco Control Bill upholds the right to be protected from misleading promotion.”

Cigarette advertising at tills and the sale of cigarettes through vending machines will be prohibited. “Machines further serve as display advertising, that all ages can access.  Tobacco products are dangerous and should not be accessed by underage people.”

Importantly, the Bill also includes the regulation of e-cigarettes, says Ayo-Yusuf.  “The top four e-cigarette manufacturers are major tobacco manufacturers, showing an industry continuing to maximise profits from both new and old products at the expense of public health and directly marketing to a new, youthful audience under the disguise of offering them a less harmful product.  Current evidence shows that e-cigarettes and its emissions are harmful to health and their use has been linked to some serious health conditions, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, chest pains and mouth ulcers. Failure to properly regulate e-cigarettes ignores the harmful effects of these products, and is a failure to protect our rights.”

Ayo-Yusuf argues that concerns against tobacco control in fact speak to the need for stronger tobacco control. “While some claim that strong tobacco control legislation interferes with freedom of choice, if a person’s freedom matters now, their future freedom should also matter. Young people who become addicted to cigarettes, or even e-cigarettes now commonly laced with high levels of nicotine salts, compromise their future health, life expectancy and disposable income. This would severely curtail their future freedom.”

Tobacco control could reduce the power tobacco companies have to infringe on the rights of vulnerable populations, such as children, smokers of lower socio-economic status and citizens in low-income countries, says Ayo-Yusuf. “It’s essential to consider how human rights-based legislation can help protect vulnerable populations from the influence of the powerful tobacco industry. In countries with low-income and weaker public health governance, a human rights approach could be especially empowering. By safeguarding basic rights, tobacco control legislation reduces the power of big tobacco companies, protecting human rights and creating a healthier environment for everyone.”


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