The tobacco paradox, other issues


The above is a heading of an article found in the Christmas double issue  of The Economist of December 23 2017. The article deserves the attention of everyone who cares about the future of the Malawi economy.

I have often lamented in this newspaper and elsewhere that the quality of newspapers and magazines which used to be found in our bookshops are nowhere to be seen around these days. If those in authority do not bother about such a situation, they are ignoring the basic elements in the development and prosperity of a modern nation. This element is knowledge, for the global era is also the knowledge era.

Do we have all the knowledge that is necessary for the development of our country? Some people think so. Though I am not a soccer fan, I love it because through scores, we gauge our status in international sports. Scores are not a matter of opinion but facts.

We cannot be absolutely certain about our knowledge and technology unless we regularly read foreign magazines and books to see what other people know and do. Reading only our own papers and magazines is like playing ntchuwa or bawo (the pebble and hole game).

People who play this game exchange pebbles but by this time they break off the total number of pebbles they have remains the same, even if one has more than the other.

Similarly, if we read nothing else but our newspapers and magazines, the knowledge we gather does not amount to a good deal, no wonder we are at the bottom of the development ladder. The reason is that we have not been borrowing from foreign sources by reading their newspapers and magazines. Individuals and States make progress by borrowing from others.

For decades, people in high places have been expressing awareness of our tobacco industry’s perilous position in world market courtesy of the World Health Organisation (WHO). But what exactly do we do in readiness for the tobacco industry doomsday in Malawi. Whenever I enter the trade fair fence in Blantyre, I see next to the gate a warning to the public that cigarette smoking injures health. This warning is given by the Ministry of Health. Other ministries are at the same time actively encouraging farmers to keep on growing tobacco as the main export earner. If we had a coordinating Ministry of Economic Affairs, the right thing would be said and done.

The issue of The Economist quoted above reveals that cigarette manufacturers in the United States are taking measures either to exit from the industry or to modify tobacco elements and therefore save their businesses. I will quote some just to show what we can learn from accessing quality foreign papers.

(i)         The research centre is run by Phillip Morris International (PMI) which sells Malboro and other brands around the world. This facility’s purpose is not to assess the risks of smoking but to determine whether this huge cigarette maker might get out of selling cigarette altogether.

(ii)         The idea that large tobacco companies might advance public health seems almost laughable yet the firms also make safer alternatives. Cigarettes have been around for a while to newer inventions are products that heat tobacco without all the deadly stuff that comes from burning it. PMI sells one such heat not burn products called IQOS in nearly three dozen countries.

(iii)        Smoking kills more Americans than car crashes, murder and drugs combined. Companies are developing products that can save millions of lives each year while still making an addictive product that is known to cause fatal diseases.

(iv)        British American Tobacco (BA) has a case pending in Kenya against its anti-tobacco laws.

(v)        New smoking products also promise to benefit big tobacco firms.

The tobacco industry is crucial to the country’s economy. But what practical measures have taken place? They ought to be given publicity in case they need inputs from other members of society. Lip service won’t take us anywhere.

What I suggest is that collaboration with scientists of other tobacco exporting countries we should set our scientists working on how smoking can be made non-harmful. What does it contain that injures health? Can that poison be extracted so as to make the rest of the stuff harmless if not more enjoyable? This may sound fanciful but remember that the marvels of our current civilisation such as the mobile phone were once considered fanciful.

Another group should be actively engaged on diversifying the economy. Again, we should be informed of what new products and industries are being introduced. There is room for brainstorming here.

Efficient working is a function of management by objectives. Those who are to do the job and their supervisors should regularly be reviewing the progress that they make. Doing is not enough.

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