Kenya: Civil Society Opposes ‘Essential’ Status for Tobacco, Alcohol

Civil Society organizations in Kenya oppose granting ‘essential’ status for tobacco and alcohol. Movendi International member organizations Alcohol Control Policy Network (ACPN) along with the International Institute for Legislative Affairs (ILA) and the Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance (Ketca) are calling on the government to remove the two substances from the list.

The inclusion of the two addictive, harmful substances in a list of 15 essential food and beverages prepared by the Ministry of Industrialisation, Trade and Enterprise Development, 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.

The civil society organizations have stated alcohol and tobacco are the weakest links in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) has advised to avoid or minimize alcohol intake and stop smoking as these behaviours increase susceptibility to the virus and its complications.

The WHO has also specifically requested governments to reduce access to alcohol for a number of reasons. These include:

  • Alcohol harms physical health and especially, weakens the immune system;
  • Alcohol harms mental health and increases stress and anxiety;
  • Alcohol fuels violence;
  • Alcohol increases road traffic crashes and injuries; and
  • Health issues, accidents and violence related to alcohol unnecessarily burden healthcare, emergency services and law enforcement;

WHO: Restrict Alcohol Access During COVID-19 Lockdown

The civil society organizations have called on the Ministry to remove alcohol and tobacco from the list of essential items considering their risk to Kenyans.

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,” said the letter by the organizations, as per Daily Nation.

Special permission for essential items

The Ministry has noted that the essential items and services list was informed by the Business Emergency Response Committee (BERC) and a technical committee of experts.

Accordingly, the manufacturers, producers and suppliers of the listed products are seen as essential and steps are to be taken to keep them operational throughout the crisis period. They will also be granted protection and special permits to work during a lockdown. These goods will also have freedom to move between counties while a lockdown is going on.

The civil society organizations opposing this move by the government have also cited the increased risk from the virus for people with pre-existing conditions, which include non-communicable diseases. Research has shown that tobacco and alcohol use are significant risk factors for such pre-existing conditions.

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,” said the civil society organizations in their letter, as per Daily Nation.

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,” read the letter.