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#HandsOffMyChoices campaign was designed to raise awareness of the tobacco bill — JTI

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JTI (Japan Tobacco International) replies to an article recently published on Daily Maverick. By Andrew Neumann.

JTI (Japan Tobacco International) South Africa launched a public awareness campaign — #HandsOffMyChoices — in July 2018, in response to the publication of The Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill in the Government Gazette, on 9 May 2018 for public comment.

Tobacco products carry risks to health and should be regulated accordingly. As a responsible company, JTI is open and transparent about the tobacco products that it manufactures and sells. Where it sees proposed regulations that are flawed, however, it acts to recommend alternative measures that take into account the social and economic impact.

An article that appeared in Daily Maverick on August 19 states: “A series of expensive print, electronic and broadcast media advertisements and social media campaigns were launched in July. The ad campaigns were carefully crafted to conceal that they were funded by a big industry player. Japan Tobacco International’s (JTI) #HandsOffMyChoices is so sophisticated that it would be difficult for an ordinary citizen to tell that it was funded by the company. The campaign has its own website that is not linked in any way to JTI’s main website…”

The statements in this article are blatantly untrue and to accuse JTI of hiding behind a carefully orchestrated campaign is disingenuous. JTI’s logo was prominent in all of the campaign material, there was extensive linking back to the website and social media, a disclaimer on the actual website, as well as links to our global position. We have no reason to “hide”.

The #HandsOffMyChoices campaign was designed to raise awareness of the publication of the tobacco bill and the proposed measures among adults, in accordance with Section 3 of the Tobacco Products Control Act (TPCA).

JTI is disappointed that government has chosen to pursue regulatory measures that are not based on reliable evidence and have failed to improve public health where they have been implemented.

One of the Bill’s elements that raises particular concern is the standardised packaging of tobacco products. There is no credible evidence that this ban on branding has helped reduce smoking prevalence or prevented smoking uptake, particularly among the youth.

The hard data from Australia, where the measure has been in place for five-and-a-half years, clearly demonstrates that standardised packaging is merely an attack on legitimate brands with zero health benefits. The sale of illegal cigarettes increased by 30% after the introduction of the measure and now stands at 15%, the country’s highest level on record. The most recent government data reveals that the historical decline in smoking rates has come to a halt.

Early data emerging from the implementation of the measure in the UK and France is no different from that of Australia:

  • Standardised packaging has not impacted tobacco sales either in France or the UK;
  • France’s Health Minister publicly acknowledged that standardised packaging does not lead smokers to stop smoking; and
  • UK authorities discovered counterfeit “plain” packs as early as one month after standardised packs appeared on retailers’ shelves.

If this ban on branding were a good policy to pursue, there would be no single country in the world to oppose or question its introduction.

As it stands, a large number of countries are opposed to this policy (for example Bulgaria, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Indonesia, Italy, Malawi, Nicaragua, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Slovakia, Switzerland, Zambia and Zimbabwe).

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi claims the bill is needed to stop young people from smoking. However, young people cannot generally afford to pay legal, tax-paid prices for cigarettes at between R25 and R40 a pack. There is instead a thriving illegal trade where packs of 20 cigarettes are freely available from as little as R5 a pack in thousands of local outlets, undermining the government’s health agenda and facilitating the accessibility of cheap and illicit products to children.

Standardised packaging and other measures in the proposed bill will not improve public health in South Africa but will definitely exacerbate this problem.

Moreover, the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) does not mandate the countries that ratified it to introduce standardised packaging but to “… introduce health warnings covering not less than 30% of the principal display areas on a pack or package” within three years of its entry into force.

We find it odd that government intends to enforce standardised packaging when it would have been more appropriate to bring the size of current health warnings in line with the requirements of the FCTC that South Africa ratified in 2005.

It is necessary and right to create a regulatory framework for tobacco control, which can tackle smoking among the youth and remind the population of the health risks of smoking. The introduction of a measure that creates damaging consequences (such as an increase in illegal trade and an unjustifiable attack on the key assets of legitimate businesses), however, is not the right policy to pursue.

Likewise, other disproportionate measures contained in the bill (including displaying legitimate products at point of sale, preventing tobacco companies from running corporate social responsibility programmes, extending the smoking ban to private lives and private properties and regulating reduced-risk products in the same way as combustible products) will adversely impact legitimate businesses, legal trade, society and future investments in South Africa – all without bringing about a reduction in smoking.

The #HandsOffMyChoices campaign was established to provide the public with factual information and create a platform for public debate around the proposals of the bill. About 5,331 South Africans raised their voices and responded to the public consultation through our website.

JTI hopes that the views of South Africans and other legitimate stakeholders will be heard and respected and that government will ensure decision-making processes in relation to the bill in general are carried out transparently.

Last, it is also important to conduct an appropriate assessment of the potential impact of the bill and its proposed measures on smoking consumption and prevalence and the impact that these measures would have on public health and legitimate businesses in the country. DM

Andrew Neumann, JTI General Manager for Southern, Eastern and Central Africa


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