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Talking tobacco with Dr. Mbongwe

Talking tobacco with Dr. Mbongwe
PASSIONATE: Dr. Bontle Mbongwe

World no-tobacco day – ‘Commit to Quit’

Dr. Bontle Mbongwe is the esteemed recipient of the 2018 International Network for Women Against Tobacco (INWAT) Achievement Award, the WHO Director General’s award for leadership in global tobacco control, University of Botswana’s Head of Environmental Health Programmes.

This week Dr. Mbongwe sat down with Voice Woman to talk about the civil society organisation that she founded and is also the Executive Director of, the Anti-Tobacco Network (ATN to discuss the theme for this year and the report of the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) in Botswana which was launched last year in December by Minister of Health and Welfare, Dr. Edwin Dikoloti.

Talking tobacco with Dr. Mbongwe

DEDICATED: Dr. Mbongwe

Congratulations on your recent appointment as Botswana Representative in the UN Expert Group on DDT. Briefly tell us more about the appointment and your organization, ATN. The theme this year is ‘Commit to Quit. Does Botswana have services that assist smokers with quitting e.g. Toll-free quitlines, mobile and digital cessation services, nicotine replacement therapies, and other tools that are proven to help people quit?

Currently, Botswana does not have any formal centres for the referral of smokers who are addicted to tobacco.

Tobacco users at the moment seek assistance from pharmacists, a few private practitioners, civil society organisations such as BOSASNet, Stop Smoking Support Group, and the Anti-Tobacco Network.

The assistance is largely counselling and provision of nicotine replacement therapies such as nicotine patches, gums, and other herbal products.

These are, however, only accessible to individuals who can afford them.

The Anti-tobacco Network is persuading the government to initiate smoking cessation programmes in hospitals as well as to train health care professionals on smoking cessations and treatment

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Talking tobacco with Dr. Mbongwe

ACTIVISTS: Dr.-Mbongwe-with-her-Anti-Tobacco-Network-team

According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) Botswana report, 240 000 adults use tobacco, reportedly the highest rate in the SADC region, can you say the government is doing enough to address this particular epidemic?

The Government of Botswana has over the years been a leader in the African Region in terms of tobacco control, it was among the first to have legislation in tobacco control.

The re is the Control of Smoking Act of 1992 which was further amended in 2004, Botswana was among the first to ratify the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and in the African region, it has been the only country that introduced a 30% tobacco levy in the African Region.

The rationale behind the tobacco levy was for the country to strengthen tobacco control programmess (protection of public health) within the Ministry of Health and Wellness, support civil society organizations to assist the government with advocacy as well as to assist the government to develop cessation and treatment programmes.

However, over time, the government slowed down its aggression on the implementation of tobacco control initiatives and we believe part of this slowdown was caused by the interference of the tobacco industry; Government partnerships with Japan Tobacco Inc.

(JTI) on agricultural projects, British American Tobacco Botswana (BATB) with law enforcement entities such as the Botswana Police Service and the Botswana Unified Revenue Service, partnerships that the government had with the tobacco industry.

To date, the government has not implemented the tobacco levy to the best of our knowledge, yet the levy fund presented a great opportunity for the Government of Botswana to excel more than any other African country.

Additionally, there is currently poor enforcement of the current control of the Smoking Act.

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Even though the government has restrictions on smoking in public places, the public continues to be exposed to secondhand smoke in public places.

The law prohibits the sale of tobacco products to and by persons aged 18 and below, and yet tobacco is sold near and in some instances within primary and secondary schools, attracting children to buy such products.

Many other sections of the law are not enforced such as advertising and promotion and sponsorship.

The survey also revealed that 83.9% of tobacco users were keen to quit, however, only 7% managed to. What campaigns does ATN have geared towards reversing the disturbing findings of the survey?

ATN has been engaging the Ministry of Health and wellness to fast-track smoking cessation and treatment.

In 2020, just before COVID-19 hit, we paid a courtesy call to the then Minister of Health and Wellness to fast track the tobacco control law as well as to fast track the smoking cessation and treatment programmes to assist smokers with quitting.

We have written to Mobile companies to assist ATN with Quitlines and we still hope someone will listen one day.

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At the start of and during COVID-19, we persuaded the government to ban the sale of tobacco products and the government heeded our call.

During the ban, we advocated for the government to assist smokers to quit.

We were funded by the National AIDS Health Promotion Agency to produce educational materials to encourage smoking cessation as well as to raise awareness of members of the public on the relationship between smoking and COVID-19.

Let’s talk about secondhand smoke. The hospitality industry – restaurants and hotels, save for places like Mugg and Bean, continue to allow smoking within their premises, exposing both non-smoking patrons and staff to secondhand smoke.

We have over the years advocated for a law that totally bans smoking in public places as well as approaches restaurants to totally ban smoking to protect customers and most importantly to protect workers from the devastating impact of tobacco smoke.

We are very grateful that some restaurants, particularly at malls such as Riverwalk, responded very positively including Mugg and Bean.

On this point, we also want to heartily thank and congratulate the government of Botswana for the bold decision to finally gazette the new Comprehensive Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Compliant Bill.

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Among others, the Bill prohibits smoking in public places without any exception to the rule!

This is truly commendable and we believe the government will stay true to these provisions and defend them without the interference of the tobacco industry in Botswana.

Anything else you’d like to add before you end the interview?

As the Government of Botswana is gearing towards debating the Tobacco Control Bill, hopefully, this July, the most critical and important law that protects not only the health but also the social and environmental ills caused by tobacco use, we encourage the public to rally behind the Government of Batswana in defending this law.

Some may buy the argument of the tobacco industry that controlling tobacco use has no evidence of reducing smoking rates, or it will increase illicit trade or it breaches international and domestic intellectual property laws or it will cause losses for small retail businesses, or it will cause job losses.

We are here as the Anti-Tobacco Network to provide evidence that all those arguments are false.

We call upon leaders of this country to resist tobacco industry pressure during the debate.

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