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The war against smoking is myopic

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By | March 8th 2010

Dominic Odipo

Strolling along a Nairobi street last week, we suddenly saw a group of three men accost and then arrest another and start pushing him towards the Holy Family Basilica. Thinking the three men were muggers, we moved closer.

We caught up with the group as the reluctant prisoner was pleading to be set free as he was not aware that puffing a cigarette on a Nairobi street was a criminal offence. That was when the Nairobi smoking reality suddenly dawned upon us non-smokers. If you puff on a cigarette while strolling on a Nairobi street you are liable to be arrested and charged.

A small but seemingly highly-motivated ‘Smoking Police" force is out there stalking unsuspecting smokers. This Smoking Police is fully maintained by your taxes, including those sourced from the tobacco industry itself, which amounted to more than Sh15 billion in 2008.

This smoking charade continued Friday morning but in a somewhat different format and forum. At the end of a full-page advert of recommended retail pack prices of cigarettes, there appeared the mandatory warning: "Smoking harms people next to you."

To the casual reader, the message seemed very clear. Smoking does not harm the smoker or even those a few metres away. It only harms those next to him!

The Book of Ecclesiastes has left us with numerous eternal lessons. Among these is that, to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. This, apparently, is the season and the time for bashing smoking, in all its forms, regardless of what real harm it actually causes or what other dangers to our health we could more sensibly be bashing instead.

What, actually, is the more dangerous activity to an ordinary Kenyan’s life? Is it smoking one cigarette in a Nairobi street or driving or being driven on any Kenyan road? What, in a word, is the more risky undertaking if we define risk simply as the likelihood of something unpleasant happening? Let’s return to this question in a moment.

On average, about 45,000 Americans die in motor accidents every year, compared to only 500 lives lost in plane crashes involving Americans. Yet, afraid of flying because they perceive it to be more risky, Americans drive, thus dramatically increasing their overall risk of injury or death.

Only a very brave or foolhardy Kenyan doctor can tell you the number of Kenyans who die from smoking every year. The number must be out there somewhere but no one seems to have it at his or her fingertips because isolating those deaths caused strictly by smoking is no mean task.

Ride on roads

But these same doctors who don’t know how many Kenyans die by smoking each year will readily tell you that if every Kenyan had access to clean water for drinking and washing hands before meals, the overall impact on our healthcare system would be far greater than everything we are now doing to fight malaria and HIV/Aids combined.

In other words, unless smoking kills more Kenyans each year than both malaria and Aids (an unlikely prospect), it would make much more sense for the Government to invest more in the provision of clean water than in the fight against malaria, Aids and smoking. In a word, compared to the other health risks we are facing, fighting smoking at the frenzied pace we seem to be doing, cannot possibly make sense.

One of the most dangerous things any Kenyan can do today is to drive or take a ride on any of our roads. Every year, more than 30,000 Kenyans are either killed or maimed in motor accidents. If the Government was as zealous about protecting Kenyans against road accidents as it seems to be about protecting them from smoking, then every vehicle advert appearing in the local papers would have to carry this warning underneath: "Driving on a Kenyan road is extremely dangerous to your health."

The Government has got a lot of its priorities up-side-down. Surely, there must be something more valuable or productive that the ‘Smoking Police" could be doing instead! Watching this charade, you are left thinking that the authorities cannot be trusted to spend our taxes prudently and efficiently.

Confucius, the Chinese sage, is said to have told his disciple Tsze-kung that three things are required for government: weapons, food and trust — but that if a ruler cannot hold onto all three, he should give up the weapons first and then the food. Trust should be guarded to the end. ""Without trust we cannot stand." To the Kenyan authorities, this saying appears to have been reversed: "Without weapons we cannot stand."

The writer is a lecturer and consultant in Nairobi.

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