By Ivan Cairo
Caribbean News Now contributor
PARAMARIBO, Suriname -- In a unanimous vote the Surinamese parliament on Thursday adopted stringent anti-tobacco legislation that should ultimately banish smoking from public life.
While there are still several issues regarding implementation and enforcement of the ‘Tobacco Act’, opposition and coalition MPs gave their support, claiming that the health of the Surinamese population was at stake.
Measures to discourage the use of cigarettes and other tobacco products include, among other things, a ban on the selling or buying of tobacco by individuals 18 and younger, and a ban on smoking in cars, offices, bar, restaurants and other public places such as bus stops.
The government’s policy to discourage the use of tobacco is necessary, officials argued, since surveys indicate that 24 percent of the Surinamese population are active smokers.
In 2011, at a meeting with other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders in New York, President Desi Bouterse, a heavy smoker, declared that he would quit smoking to set an example in the fight against non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
While discussions in parliament were taking place, the hospitality industry tried a last ditch attempt to persuade government and parliament to implement the law over a certain period of time in order to enable stakeholders to adjust to the new situation.
Representatives claimed that business will decline, since patrons or visitors will stay away because of the tobacco ban.
“It took the Netherlands 12 years to implement tobacco legislation. Why do we want to that overnight,” George Aalstein, a bar owner, questioned.
Jules Ramlakhan, chairman of the Association of Casino Owners, added that, since “nothing more can be done to prevent the Tobacco Act”, his organization will just wait for the negative impact, hoping “that we will survive”. Ramlakhan stated that, around the world, 20 percent of workers in the hospitality sector lost their job after tobacco legislation was established in respective countries.
“This is a historical moment,” several legislators noted before giving their approval, claiming that, with the implementation of the Tobacco Act, parliament is securing the health and future of the country’s youth and future generations. Members of parliament called upon the government to embark upon an intensive and nationwide awareness campaign to inform the public in general, but also stakeholders in the hospitality sector and officials who will be tasked to enforce the new legislation.
“Officials ought to know exactly what is required from them and what they can and what they can’t do,” said opposition MP Winston Jessurun.
Vice Speaker of the House, Ruth Wijdenbosch, argued that the Tobacco Act is one of the most important laws the National Assembly has passed in recent years.
“We will sanction this bill, because with this legislation we will save many lives and especially lives of our youngsters,” she said.
She added that the Tobacco Act is not a “declaration of war” against the hospitality industry, but government and parliament are putting forward measures to protect workers and patrons from secondhand smoking and its consequences.
During the three week debate in parliament, minister of public health, Michel Blokland, wouldn’t give in to pressure of legislators to allow stakeholders to establish smoking areas in their facilities. He argued that smokers have one large smoking area: “outside, in the open air”. According to the government official, the government has been preparing the Tobacco Act for a while.
“For years we were fighting for this law and now that historical moment has arrived,” said Blokland, who before he was appointed as a cabinet minister was a member of the National Council for Tobacco Control.