Public Health Policy’s Implications

Feb 16 , 2019

The passing of the food and medicine bill in parliament early last month is indicative of the government’s stated interest to protect public health. There is undoubtedly a long way to go before enforcement can meet the subtlety and robustness of most laws in Ethiopia, but credit is due to lawmakers that are insisting that people’s lives come first.

The proclamation’s stricter regulation of tobacco products is especially commendable. It is a powerfully addictive substance, and should not be left to chance that people will realise its negative effects and give up smoking.

Human beings are just not made that way. The drug rules an addict, for addiction is a disease. Nicotine changes how the brain, as well as the body, functions, making addiction more than a matter of personal choice, except of course in the first instances of use.

Thus, it is only natural for the government to be attentive of the scourge - and it is a scourge - called tobacco, as it does with other diseases of public concern. Every ounce of advertisement and promotion, as well as public use, makes it harder for addicts who want to quit smoking meet their goals. And this is not to mention passive smokers that are in the crossfire, who are affected by tobacco use despite never having made a choice.

The lawmakers move toward alcohol though is somewhat controversial. Of course, alcohol is not a good thing when not consumed in moderation. But there are enough grounds to question the benefits of the legislation as it applies to the promotion of low-alcohol products and sponsorship by the brewery companies.

The beer industry is booming currently, which cannot be said for most other sectors in Ethiopia. It employs thousands, including factory workers and farmers, and its growth has influenced small businesses in the form of pubs, which are a means for many people to make a living.

Perhaps more importantly, its links with other industries have been positive. The advertising industry is perhaps the most evident, as ads with better production qualities than local movies have been made. There was just as much jubilation with media outlets, which had been some of the chief beneficiaries, as the brewery industry boomed, not to mention concerts, events and holiday shows that made use of the opportunity.

Even if all of these investments had been made with the goal of selling more beer, the role it played in stimulating the economy is undeniable. It has for a while been a useful means of getting international brewers in Ethiopia, which own most of the profitable brands, to reinvest in the country at a time when the government is hard-pressed to find foreign currency for them to repatriate their profits.

This is all the more a compelling argument given that beer has low alcohol content. It may be harmful when used without moderation but neither is it known for being as addictive and damaging as nicotine.

Beverages with higher alcohol contents are mostly what lead to alcoholism. This is a far bigger problem precisely because of traditional high alcohol content drinks, such as Tejand Areqi, which thrive despite not being advertised and promoted to any significant extent. This law would be hard-pressed to address their effects.

Momentarily, it is futile to litigate the new proclamation as it relates to low-alcohol content beverages for it has already been legislated. But it should serve as an excellent example of the need to carefully weigh the various factors at hand. Despite the advantages they may seem to have, public health policies can at times be counterproductive to the economy.

There are times when the authorities should be able to put public health and social demands before the possibility of some people losing jobs and the government tax revenue, as in the case with tobacco. Other times, it should be fine to allow people to make choices when the public health impacts, as in beer, but not beverages with high alcoholic content, are little compared to economic advantages. Sometimes, it is alright to let people make choices and take responsibility.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 16,2019 [ VOL 19 , NO 981]

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