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NGOs want alcohol, tobacco removed from essential goods list

As the government starts distributing food to the poor, questions still linger over the inclusion of trading in alcohol and tobacco products among businesses that can continue to operate past curfew hours or beyond restricted travel areas.

This comes as a group of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) warned that the inclusion of the products may prove disastrous, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis period.

Terming tobacco and alcohol as deadly, the International Institute for Legislative Affairs (IILA), Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance (Ketca) and Alcohol Control Policy Network (ACPN) want the government to withdraw the two products from the list.

WEAKEST LINK

They argue that alcohol and tobacco, which is used to manufacture cigarettes, are the weakest link in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are saddened that the Ministry of Industrialisation, Trade and Enterprise Development has chosen to enlist alcohol and tobacco as part of essential products,” the NGOs state in their latest joint protest letter to the ministry.
The three NGOs are involved in the control of the use of tobacco and alcohol.

The inclusion of the two in a list of 15 essential food and beverages came after the government declared a countrywide dusk-to-dawn curfew and the cessation of movement in the counties of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale to check the spread of Covid-19.

INCREASES RISK

The NGOs say the government’s decision should not have come at a time when the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other global health experts have cited that tobacco use, which causes lung cancer, increases the risk of Covid-19 deaths.

Tobacco use causes respiratory infections ranging from common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Alcohol has also been found to lower the human body’s ability to fight the virus.

“We believe that your ministry is well-intentioned in supporting the fight against the pandemic and are, therefore, urging you to kindly withdraw the listing of these deadly commodities as part of essential products,” the protest letter copied to Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe reads.

LIST

The list has cereals, sugar, wheat products (breads, confectionaries and breakfast cereals), sugar confectionaries, dairy products, processed foods, meat and meat products, fish and edible oils.

The others are salt and cooking spices, fruits, vegetables and nuts, water, juices and non or carbonated drinks/diluting drinks, tea, coffee, tobacco and alcohol beverages.

However, the Industrialisation ministry noted that the coming up of the essential products and services was informed by the Business Emergency Response Committee (BERC) and a technical committee of experts.

ESSENTIAL

“The committee identified the manufacturers, producers and suppliers of the listed products as essential to sustenance of lives and efforts must be taken to keep them operational throughout the crisis period,” the ministry’s statement said.

It continued, “Due to their significance, workers and providers of logistics to these sectors need protection and special permits in the event of a lockdown.”

While outlining the measures to limit the movement of people in the country to and from the most affected counties, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced special consideration to allow the free movement of the essential products and services.

“We believe that this move will not only make the Ministry of Health and the government’s efforts counterproductive in the fight against Covid-19 but also subject Kenyans to unnecessary, yet preventable deaths,” the NGOs said.

PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS

Other than the position of WHO and other health experts on Covid-19 and tobacco use, research has also indicated that people with pre-existing conditions such as cancer, diabetes, among other non-communicable diseases, are highly susceptible to viral attacks such as Covid-19.

Numerous studies have also listed tobacco and alcohol use as significant risk factors for these conditions.

According to WHO, tobacco use is responsible for over eight million deaths globally every year.

Out of these deaths, seven million are as a result of direct smoking while 1.5 million deaths have been caused by exposure to secondary.

Alcohol, on the other hand, has contributed to over three million deaths annually.

With Covid-19 already a global pandemic, it means that the deaths may increase unless tobacco and alcohol use is checked, the NGOs argue.

“We see these products as death-traps whose consumption will continue to strain the health system and increase the health burden in Kenya. We should be cautious not to replace one pandemic with another.”