Of smoke and smokescreens

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Full disclosure: I was a small player in a lobby for the regulation of smoking in public and work places – a lobby that may have contributed to then-Minister of Health Rajesh Jeetah’s bold changes to the public health regulations in 2008. I do not deny smokers the right to smoke. It is a legitimate right in a democratic society. So is the right of non-smokers not to smoke or be subjected to unwanted smoke.

So I must admit that I had an initial surge of dopamine when the commissioner of prisons announced the smoking ban in all the penitentiary facilities. Providing a smoke-free environment in prisons will help reduce the harm from tobacco. After all, prison staff are entitled to the same protection as all the workers. And, if the smoking ban, as suggested by the Lam Shang Leen report, will also help curb the drug trade in prisons, what’s to disagree about? 

So why am I not jumping for joy at the idea of protecting prison staff, decreasing the use and sale of drugs in prison and even helping inmates go smoke-free? Why am I not applauding the commissioner of prisons for at least doing something after a mandate marked by apathy? Simply because things are not that simple. 

What saddens me is that we are turning more and more into an illiterate, ignorant nation. Look at most of the decisions taken on our behalf. From the yo-yo measures surrounding the Penalty Point System and the Methadone distribution to the latest sudden announcements of free tertiary education and credits, the pattern is the same: a minister, or an authority of some sort, wakes up in the morning and makes a monumental announcement totally out of the blue, at times committing huge amounts of taxpayers’ money, without blinking. There is no research, no debate, no consultation, no asking about the opinion of those who are in the field, no nothing. Why, there is not even as much as googling the topic and finding out what happened in other countries which may have tried the measures before us. 

You heard the prime minister commit to two major plans. First, increasing the old-age pension to make it comparable to the minimum salary. Did you hear any consultation with economists? Did he even have a figure of the number of pensioners, the state of our greying population, the workforce, who will pay for the pensions…No, the minister decides and the country pays. Then free tertiary education came as another bolt out of the blue. Did you hear of any research about who would benefit from it, whether it would help those who are genuinely in need or be an additional freebie for those who can afford to pay? Did you hear any study about the relationship between free tertiary education and employment prospects? Then the 5-credit requirement was announced by our minister of education in the same vein. Any reason why we should opt for five or three or zero? What happened to those who scored three credits and went on to HSC in the past? Any research? Any study? Any expert opinions sought? Not that we know of, none having been made known. Government is government and government decides.

The kneejerk reaction of the commissioner of prisons is no different. Yes, the measure was recommended by the Lam Shang Leen report. But was it the only one? What happened to the other recommendations? Why pick only this one? What about the corruption gangrening the whole prison system highlighted in the same report? Did anyone look into that? Shouldn’t that have been the first step? What’s the point of introducing a ban if the corrupt system has already started reaping even more benefits by increasing the price of a packet of cigarettes to – hold your breath – Rs5,000? Above all, did anyone look at a single report about what happened in other countries where the ban was introduced? Have a look in our cover story this week. You might be surprised.

At the end of the day, through half-baked measures and kneejerk reactions, we are not smoking out the ills of our society. We are only creating smokescreens. Who exactly are we fooling?

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