The affair that is fogging health and puffing tax

In 2007, Uganda ratified the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This legislation introduced ‘smoke free zones’- areas where tobacco users are not allowed to puff at a cigarette stick. Some of the places designated are public worship places, public transport means, indoor workplaces and public convention centres.

I once visited a famous hangout in one of Kampala suburbs and saw revellers enjoy puffs of shisha (water-pipe tobacco) and kuber. For a while, the scented smoke did not bother me until a huge cloud choked one of the partakers to tears and wet coughs. She took it in with a hard liquor sip, said the Persians settled well with the product. I did not argue. Health reasons are personal. But her cough left me worried for my health.

There is increase in activism against tobacco use in the world, hence the reason why Uganda’s 2015 legislation presently faces legal challenge from tobacco producers.

The Act

The Uganda Tobacco Control Act (2015) has crucial points it addresses. Among these are:

  • Ban on production, sale and use of electronic cigarettes. Honestly, I have only seen these in movies especially where Leonardo DiCaprio is trying to quit.
  • Total ban on public smoking. Now, this one is a big one. It is irritating to walk the same lane with an active smoker. Methinks the one that smokes on-spot is better.
  • Issuing notices against smoking in both official and local languages. Have you noticed the ‘Hatari’ post on electricity poles? Prevention is better than cure. I do not see any wrong in telling someone that ‘smoking is harmful to your health’ so they know what they are getting themselves into. What frustrates are the effects the passive smoker suffers because an active smoker chose not to heed the warning. The law has the ‘Neighbour Principle’ which literally translates to being aware of our actions and how they affect our neighbours. (Refer to who a ‘neighbour’ is to understand the gravity of this matter).
  • Total ban on some tobacco product like shisha and kuber. The problem with these two is their widespread use among the youths and school going children. It is rumored that kuber keeps students alert while revising. Used on account of seeking better grades, rumor proves that some students have lost run mad, eventually.
  • Total ban on adverts, promotions and sponsorships by tobacco companies and stakeholders. ‘Marlborough’ (anyone)? Something as harmful to one’s health as tobacco to be presented in an attractive way, like most consumer adverts, is excessive. True, many businesses survive on adverts enticing consumers to the product. But for a dangerous product to be shown as the real deal is not fair to non-consumers, or passive consumers in this matter.

The debate

In the Act, ‘total ban’ is what the law advocates for. This however is prejudicial to the tobacco industry whose business survives on an existent market.   Banning a profitable product like tobacco means that:

  • It will be illegal to trade in, deal with and possess the product;
  • Consumers will find illegal means of obtaining it;
  • More enforcement laws will have to be enacted to curb the illegal trade and consumption;
  • Little attention may be put to rehabilitation but rather punitive measures against manufacturer and consumer;
  • Another war on the product will create cartels engaging in the illegal trade causing internal and international conflicts.

Governments have the mandate to protect their citizens as well as offer a suitable atmosphere for investment and industrialization. The conflict between these two is what is causing the present outrage.

In the previous financial year 2015/2016, BAT (Uganda) ranked no.19 on Uganda Revenue Authority’s top tax payers with Ushs.42,046,858,109/=. BAT (U) Annual Report & Financial Statements for the year ended 31st December, 2015 looked juicy for the tax and revenue regulators. These numbers do not lie. They made the government smile. The tobacco industry plays a vital role in the economy of Uganda. Beside revenue, employment and corporate responsibility benefits have accrued from the business.

In as much as the economy has received a boost from the tobacco industry proceeds, so has the health system noted a decline in healthy living. World Health Organisation Statistics show that about 13,000 people die annually from tobacco related illness. This number includes passive smokers.

Suffice to say the increased risk of passive smoking causes worry to the population and government alike. If government were to spend billions on industrialization, it would have to spend twice or more on medical infrastructure and manpower.

The tobacco industry flourishes under its most conducive factor, demand. The market is available and profitable. Unfortunately for this market, Uganda does not have many fully established rehabilitation centres for smokers willing to quit. So, while tobacco manufacturers have wiling consumers, they lack appropriate structures to limit the adverse dangers of their product, which is ironic, though.


A country that gladly accepts proceeds from a taxpayer cannot absolutely deny him the freedom to operate on his source of income. If arguably BAT (U) contributes an enormous package to the revenue, she deserves some leniency on her operations. The smoke pipe, however modernized is too ancient to abolish.

Likewise, given the documented and undisputed dangers of smoking, tobacco manufacturers cannot deny non-smokers and passive smokers the right to fresh and tobacco free air. It is important to limit air pollution since climate change is a factual phenomenon. Whether from the puff or the factory vent, pollution is not to be tolerated. And government must decide on whether to save its citizens or the economic basket.


This article appears in our weekly digital law magazine, The Deuteronomy, Vol 9, Issue 3 of December 16th, 2016

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