Thirteen years ago, US Federal Judge Gladys Kessler found the major tobacco companies guilty of what were essentially organised criminal activity.
The companies had been covering up what they knew for decades.
According to Kessler, tobacco companies “concealed and suppressed research data and other evidence that nicotine is addictive”, as well as information they had about the hazards of passive smoking.
Furthermore, these tobacco companies profit from a highly addictive and dangerous product that leads to “a staggering number of deaths per year, an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss”. While they knew all of that for more than five decades, “they have consistently, repeatedly and with enormous skill and sophistication, denied these facts to the public, the government, and to the public health community”.
Sorry after the fact
In the recent years, those companies had to publish “corrective statements” in newspapers, on their company websites and on cigarettes packs.
The damage to hundreds of millions worldwide, however, has already been done.
A tragically similar story emerges about another modern product, which is even more prevalent: plastic. Unlike cigarettes, plastic is virtually everywhere: from food wrappings to electric appliances; disposable cutlery to coat hangers.
It has not always been this way. Ask your grandparents or your parents how they used to live and you’d get all sorts of wondrous stories.
They used to wash and refill their glass bottles. They shopped with a straw or toad bag.
They slept on cotton mattresses with wool blankets.
But in the 1960s, everything began to change. The great oil extracting industries were happy to spread plastic, which is a by-product of the fuel they were selling.
The public was happy to embrace a cheap product, which makes life so much easier.
Much like with tobacco, it was natural for people not to worry about plastic. Everyone assumed the government would guarantee their safety. It didn’t. In fact, much like cigarette butts, plastics are non-degradable.
They are pile up and ruin the environment. Even worse, plastics break down to little particles that go into our drinking water, our food and eventually, our blood.
By now, we are all affected. Consequently, we’re all more likely to suffer from cancer, heart problems, diabetes, infertility and birth defects, impaired immunity, hormonal problems, and more.
Again, just like with tobacco, the science had been known to oil companies for decades. But instead of coming clean, they preferred to hide, lie and poison the public.
The dangers of plastic
Finally, just like cigarettes are now being pushed into Africa, after they became infamous just about anywhere else, so do oil companies target our continent to spread plastic – after its environmental and health risks have become known.
The good news is that Kenyans understand that and they’re making clear they won’t put up with it. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s announcement that all single-use plastics will be banned from recreational centres across the country was quite remarkable. The piles of rubbish on our beaches and in our national parks become more than just a nuisance. Unstopped, it is bound to damage our environment and hurt the tourism sector and destroy our national treasures.
Kenya has placed itself as one of the global leaders most committed to fighting climate change and saving the planet from destruction.
Policies like the ban on single-use plastic bags gave us back our streets and our playgrounds and our rivers and streams and were subsequently adopted by neighbouring countries.
The Jubilee administration’s pledge to plant enough trees to cover 10 per cent of the country and to shift towards renewable energies like solar, hydro and wind, are all additional pillars in a new world that we must build.
President Kenyatta is right not to wait for the major lawsuits to hit the oil companies, just like they hit the tobacco firms.
That could take years, and by the end of their trials - no compensation would be enough. We just don’t have time to waste.
As citizens, we must support and encourage our government’s bold measures against plastic. Banning plastic is tough. It means giving up a comfortable product.
For the government, it means standing up to the pressure from powerful economic forces. Nevertheless, given everything we know already, banning plastic is certainly better than the alternatives.
Mr Machio is a HR consultant in Nairobi.
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