The first time I smoked a cigarette was way back in 1995 when I was a student in Senior One. Not because I liked it, but all the big boys were doing it and it would help me fit in with the cool kids.
Since then I’ve been engaged in a battle to stop smoking. I go for months without a puff and then, in a moment of weakness, indulge in the rather disgusting habit.
Yes, I know it’s disgusting; yes I know it can cause cancer and all sorts of diseases. But I still derive some sort of satisfaction from puffing on a ‘cancer stick’.
So, when last Tuesday I read a story in The New Times titled ‘Increase taxes on tobacco, experts urge government’ I was overjoyed that there was a proposal to reduce smoking.
Overjoyed that some 14-year-old would not have to go through the same fight I’ve had to wage to kick my habit.
Sadly, on further reading, I found out that the so-called solution was nothing but a move to increase tax revenue from tobacco products and not to reduce smoking in the most vulnerable groups i.e. young people. At least in my humble opinion.
If tobacco-expert Francis Thompson, director of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, an NGO partnering with the World Health Organisation (WHO), is to be believed “higher taxes lead to high purchase prices for tobacco products, discouraging consumption, which in the process reduces health risks, yet maximising tax revenue for a country.”
However, I think that he’s simply copying and pasting a solution from somewhere in the world and thinking that it will work here.
In my experience, the price of a pack of cigarettes has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not a young person will start smoking. They smoke to fit in, be cool and rebel against social convention.
No one starts smoking because they want to pass time. In fact, I could barely afford the habit in all honesty since my dad refused to give me enough pocket money. But I still did. How was this possible?
First of all, instead of buying a packet of Sportsman cigarettes at 1,000 Uganda shillings, which I couldn’t afford, I could buy a stick for a student ‘friendly’ 50 shillings.
And when I couldn’t afford the measly fifty shillings, someone always could. We’d share a single cigarette between up to ten people. Puff and pass, puff and pass.
Let’s examine what the WHO thinks will reduce smoking incidences. It recommends that member countries (such as Rwanda) increase excise tax charged on cigarettes to at least 70 per cent of the retail price of a packet.
So, for example, if the new pricing system came into being, a packet of the local brand ‘Intore’, which is presently sold at a retail price of Rwf600, would cost Rwf1020.
Sounds great doesn’t it? Very few primary and secondary school students can afford it, right?
They won’t start smoking, right? Wrong. Before we celebrate the demise of the cigarette, remember that our retailers sell single sticks. A single stick would cost a measly Rwf 51 up from Rwf30.
Rwf51 is still sadly affordable to anyone who wants to experiment.
I’m not saying that increasing taxes will not reduce some incidences of smoking. What I’m saying is that it is not a silver bullet.
Here is my suggestion. Instead of merely increasing the price of a packet of cigarettes, make it illegal to sell single sticks. And then punish severely those that refuse to heed the law.
Trust me, if I had to choose between a packet of cigarettes and two meals at the canteen, I would have chosen the meals, every single time.
And while we are on the topic of smoking, can someone please enforce our public smoking laws? In many of our hotels and restaurants, the anti-smoking rules are not enforced, choosing a laissez-faire attitude to the regulations.