MoH empowers Tobacco Board to fight rise in addictive products

PS Mary Muthoni said they would grant it the autonomy to regulate effectively

In Summary

• The board has no say on taxes levied on the tobacco industry yet it is mandated to manage the tobacco control fund.

• The 2023 Africa Tobacco Industry Interference Index, showed Kenya has Africa’s highest level of interference, compared to 2021

Public Health PS Mary Muthoni last week met with new board chair Naomi Shaaban and discussed the proposed changes.
Public Health PS Mary Muthoni last week met with new board chair Naomi Shaaban and discussed the proposed changes.

As new tobacco products targeting children flood the country, the Ministry of Health has agreed to cede more powers to the entity created to fight them.

The ministry said it would propose amendments to the Tobacco Control Act to make the Tobacco Control Board stronger.

The board was created under the Tobacco Control Act 2007 but has remained adrift and unable to end the tobacco menace in Kenya.

Recently, a continental report showed that despite Kenya having strong tobacco control laws, it has the highest level of interference from the industry in Africa.

Public Health PS Mary Muthoni last week met with new board chair Naomi Shaaban and discussed the proposed changes.

She did not mention the specific intended changes but said they would grant the board the autonomy necessary for more effective regulation of tobacco-related issues.

“The central point was empowering the board to carry out its mandate, particularly concerning anti-tobacco measures and public health initiatives,” Muthoni said.

For instance, the board has no say on taxes levied on the tobacco industry, yet it is mandated to manage the Tobacco Control Fund.

Tobacco is the world’s biggest preventable cause of non-communicable diseases, such as cancer.

Despite Kenya’s impressive tobacco control laws, a recent continental assessment showed the tobacco industry in the country is audaciously and successfully fighting the implementation of those laws.

The 2023 Africa Tobacco Industry Interference Index showed Kenya has Africa’s highest level of interference compared to 2021.

“Eight countries showed deterioration from their 2021 rankings, with Kenya recording the highest level of deterioration,” the new index showed.

The index measures how governments are responding to tobacco industry interference and protecting their public health policies from commercial and vested interests of the industry as required by the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

The interference has enabled the tobacco industry to flood the Kenyan market with unregulated nicotine pouches and other unregulated products, such as e-cigarettes.

Recently, MPs asked the Ministry of Health to ban nicotine pouches in Kenya because they flout the Tobacco Control Act.

"The [Health] CS should clarify if the substance has sneaked its way into the Kenyan market as a rebrand of Lyft that was banned by the government in 2019," Sabina Chege said in Parliament recently, referring to the Velo nicotine pouches sold in the country.

The Act requires nicotine and tobacco products to carry graphic and written health warnings in both English and Kiswahili, covering at least 30 per cent of the package.

All the pouches in Kenya currently have no graphic warnings, and one brand carries a tiny, largely illegible warning, covering less than 10 per cent of the package.

The index proposes several recommendations for governments, including maintaining a strong stance against tobacco industry interference, fast-tracking the passing of pending tobacco control laws, and building the capacity of tobacco control stakeholders.

The index is produced annually by the African Tobacco Control Alliance (ATCA) in collaboration with the Africa Centre for Tobacco Industry Monitoring and Policy Research and the Global Centre for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC).

According to the report, Zambia, Tanzania and Cameroon have the highest tobacco industry interference, with Cameroon recording the worst performance. Uganda, Ethiopia and Botswana have the lowest rates of tobacco industry interference, with Botswana being the best-performing country.

ATCA executive secretary Leonce Sessou called on tobacco control actors to use the index to foster tobacco control advocacy in their respective countries.

Kenya’s umbrella body on tobacco control, the Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance, said the country is going backward in protecting people’s health.

“This is very scary. Our focus and priorities changed. Individual egos and interest occupied the driver’s seat. It might get worse unless we all stand up to be counted. We need a rebirth,” Ketca chairman Joel Gitali said.

Dr Mary Assunta, lead author of the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index, said the Africa index exposes how the major tobacco companies in the world push their selfish agenda in Africa, rather than support public health.

She pointed out that implementing tobacco control is possible and inexpensive, and the implementation of tobacco control laws greatly impacts public health.

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