Smokescreen shrouds Suriname’s tobacco law

By Marvin A. Hokstam

Theo-VishnudattSURINAME–Suriname’s Parliament says it will not facilitate amendments to the impending tobacco control legislation that, when passed will outlaw smoking in public places. The bill will be tabled on Tuesday, but on Friday regional health watchdog Healthy Caribbean Coalition rang the alarm bells, saying that the concept was amended and weakened, and left with insufficient laws to be enforceable. “We will not give any concessions on this issue. This legislation will be presented in its original form and once it is passed and becomes law, it will be enforced,” reacted National Democratic Party (NDP) parliamentarian Theo Vishnudatt who chairs the Tobacco Law Committee of the National Assembly DNA.

The tobacco control law was designed to establish as many 100% smokefree public places in the country as possible, to discourage the unhealthy habit among adults and young people and to prevent secondhand smoking. To be outlawed is smoking at cafes, bars, discos, hotels, restaurants, in public transportation, shops, markets, shopping malls, at terraces, in offices, manufacturing plants and all other publicly accessible places. In effect it appears that when the law is passed, people will only be allowed to smoke at home, in their cars or other private places. Violation will be punishable with at least one month in jail, for the smoker and up to six months for the owner of the establishment who allowed smoking. Importing excessive amounts of cigarettes can result in nine months in jail. Selling loose cigarettes will be forbidden and advertising will be banned, while packaging has to carry graphic warnings that smoking kills.

dnaThe law has been long in coming; it passed the Council of Ministers RvM in January 2012 and was submitted for discussion at Parliament, but since then appeared to have lost steam. It was picked up again in recent months, but at meetings between the committee, the Health Ministry and the entertainment sector, opinions on where smoking should still be allowed, seemed far apart. The entertainment sector requested that enforcing the law be postponed for at least a year for them to get acquainted with the new situation and to inform the public. But casino operators, fearing loss of business were adamant that at least in their gambling houses, smoking should be allowed. “Gamblers are smokers, and they could stay away if they cannot smoke in the casinos,” it was said.

Vishnudatt claimed it was the private sector that was to blame for the impression that the concept legislation was changed. “They disagreed with many of the stipulations and downloaded the original version of the legislation from the DNA website, made their own amendments and paraded that around as if that was the new concept. Even the Ministry of Public Health thought that legislation had been changed. But I am a former Minister of Health; I can’t forsake on that,” stressed Vishnudatt.

He called the private sector’s behavior “unethical” and insisted that what will be discussed on Tuesday is the draft of the legislation in its original form. He also said that the draft was still available for download from the DNA website; upon further scrutiny the link didn’t seem to work though.

healthy-caribbean-coalitionApparently this is what let off the alarmbells at the Healthy Caribbean Coalition and its Suriname monitors. “We were informed that at the last minute an amended version to the Ministry of Health draft legislation was introduced. The tobacco bill presently being considered may have less than stellar laws and regulations relating to the implementation of 100% smoke free environment in all public places and workplaces, and the implementation of comprehensive tobacco advertising bans,” the watchdog said in a press release on Friday, adding: “We strongly urge the implementation of laws in Suriname that will ban smoking in all public places in an effort to prevent the people of Suriname from being exposed to the deadly consequences of exposure to tobacco smoke.”

The statement, signed by Professor Trevor Hassell hinted that the World Health Organization (WHO) has selected “Ban Tobacco Advertising, Promotion and Sponsorship” as the theme of the next World No Tobacco Day on Friday 31 May 2013. “Against the background of this year’s theme, it becomes even more imperative that countries pass effective and enforceable tobacco control laws. Tobacco advertising bans must be sweeping and comprehensive to be effective and to protect our citizens, especially youth from the scourge of tobacco.”

The statement made note of startling trends. “Findings from the 2009 Suriname Global Youth Tobacco Survey among 13-15 year olds reveals startling tobacco trends among youth including: that 9.2% of students currently use any form of tobacco; Second Hand Smoke exposure is high – half the students live in homes where others smoke, and close to two-thirds of the students are exposed to smoke around others outside of the home; half the students have at least one parent who smokes; and 20% of students have an object with a cigarette brand logo on it.”

Other reports suggest that 30 percent of Suriname’s adults are hooked on cigarettes and that while the industry earns Government some US$ 25 million annually from taxes, it also comes with an excessive public health bill.

 

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