There’s an unwritten law that a table in a restaurant, or a hotel room in Georgia is ‘smoking’. There may even be no areas for non-smoking clients at all. Cigarettes are relatively cheap. A school student, who uses his pocket money wisely, can easily afford to buy them.
Apparently, that’s the reason why there are so many smokers here (according to various statistics, up to 40% of the total population are smokers) and there are also a diverse group of people (there are men and women, young people and pregnant women among smokers).
The debates surrounding a bill “On Tobacco Control have resumed this summer. Some Georgian media outlets have even announced when the ban on smoking in public places would take effect, on January 1, 2018. But is that really true and what happening concerning this bill?
Guguli Maghradze, an MP and one of the lobbyists of the tobacco control bill, believes that a country that claims to have European values should not have the state of affairs as described in Paragraph 1 of this law.
“A law that bans smoking indoors and smoking in public places, generally speaking, has been in effect since 2003. It even provides for penalties for smoking, but this law is useless. There hasn’t been a single case of any Georgian being fined for smoking. There are neither any instruments nor an agencies to deal with this issue. A special state commission was set up in 2013, which was supposed to work on tobacco harm reduction. An action plan was developed, but nothing has actually changed, says Maghradze.
Unlike in the old one, the new bill stipulates that there will be an agency that will be entitled to issue fines to perpetrators of the law. Starting from 2018, these “perpetrators” will be the cafes, bars and restaurants, in which people smoke. It is worth mentioning that in this law it is intended to penalize the institution where people smoke and not the smoker himself. Fines will considerably increase (the old law provides for a 5 GEL, $2.50 US, fine) starting from this date.
The new law changes the distance a place that sells tobacco can be from an educational and training institution: the minimum distance was 50 meters, whereas now it will be increased to 100. In addition to this, there will be restrictions on advertising. And in this regard, says Maghradze, the the initiators of the bill have encountered serious objections from the tobacco industry:
“They [the manufacturers and importers] are doing their best to make lawmakers postpone the bill for an indefinite period. They say, ‘Why are you in such a hurry? After all, the Association Agreement with the EU hasn’t provided for a specific time frame.’ And then I tell them: ‘We shouldn’t pass laws just because the EU requires us to do so, said Maghradze.
Doctors believe that the law will be able to help preserve many people’s health. Rezo Gagua, MD, PhD and ScD. and President of the Georgian Oncologists’ Association, believes that such restrictions should have been adopted many years ago, but it’s better late than never.
Gagua shared the World Health Organization (WHO)’s statistics with us: 8 million more people will be suffering from various forms of cancer by the year 2020. The growth rate of cancer patients’ will surely be a concern for Georgia as well.
“About 10,000 cancer patients are registered in Georgia at the moment. The number is increasing every year and it will reach 16-18,000 by 2020. The reason why smoking is related to this figure is that more than 60% of tobacco smoke is made up of carcinogens, said Gagua.
The Georgian Oncologists’ Association has recently released a special statement calling on the executive and legislative authorities to immediately pass a law that would toughen control over tobacco sales and consumption.
The Tobacco Control Alliance is the most active organization fighting for stricter control on tobacco in Georgia.
Giorgi Bakhturidze, the head of the Alliance, published the results of a recent survey conducted by the Institute of Social Studies and Analysis. It turns out that 92% of Georgia’s population support a ban on smoking in public places, and 82% support a complete ban on smoking in cafes, bars and restaurants. At the same time, more than half of respondents, 60%, are smokers themselves.
Attempts to finally introduce anti-tobacco legislation in Georgia may be referred to as recurring: there were such attempts back in 2008, in 2011 and in 2013. In 2013, the government in Georgia changed, and it seemed that things would finally get off the ground. That’s not at all how things happened.
“Then we appealed to the new government. We told them about the international commitments that Georgia has. A commission was soon set up, a strategy was developed and an action plan was approved. But then there was a new Prime Minister and the entire process was suspiciously put on halt, said Bakhturidze.
After Georgian Dream came into power, the tobacco industry stepped out of the shadows. Now it is lobbying its interests in public institutions.
“In 2015, the tobacco industry was allocated 3 million GEL of funding as part of the state-run program “Produce in Georgia. However, Article 19 of the Framework Convention (which Georgia joined in 2005), on the contrary, requires tobacco producers to compensate for the harm inflicted to public health. Also, in 2009, a ban on sponsoring various events and organizations by the tobacco industry was introduced in Georgia. Nevertheless, since 2013, one tobacco company has been actively financing state universities, students and top government officials. Another company has been illegally sponsoring private universities, research organizations, as well as the organizations conducting trainings for journalists and Economy Ministry officials. Essentially, they are buying the loyalty of both government officials and journalists. We believe there is a corruption scheme between the high-ranking officials and the tobacco industry, said Bakhturidze.
The NGO, Human Rights Center, has recently filed a lawsuit against the British-American Tobacco cigarette manufacturing company, Georgian MoI Academy (Police Academy) and the Ministry for Refugees. Eka Lomidze, the NGO’s lawyer, shared the crux of the matter:
“In 2015, the Police Academy held a certificate awards ceremony for students from socially vulnerable families and IDP students. The Minister of Refugees and Settlement of Georgia, Sozar Subari, British American Tobacco Co. officials and representatives of the Police Academy, attended the ceremony. A banner with the company logo was placed in the hall, where the event was held. It was a case of illegal sponsorship and prohibited advertising. This is a violation of the Code of Administrative Offenses, which is punishable by a fine amounting to 300 GEL, the lawyer said.
Until recently, a photo of the tobacco company’s ad had been pinned on the Police Academy’s official Facebook page, but it was removed just a few days ago.
“Such a gross legal violation in a law-enforcement agency building is absolutely unacceptable for us, said Lomidze.
Meanwhile, the bill has been considered by five parliamentary committees and has been approved by everyone but the legal committee. Due to the fact that plenary sessions are no longer being held in the Parliament, the first reading has been postponed until the autumn session.
Whether or not public interest will outweigh the tobacco industry’s interests is a matter to be seen in autumn.