Smokers are not the culprits

Smokers hide in public toilets to smoke for fear of being penalised for puffing away outdoors. Photo/FILE

Each day, every day, the average person breathes 22,000 times, inhaling 16 kgs of air and whatever else is in it.

Unless your cheeks are looking a bit puffed and your eyes are popping, shortly after you breathe in, you breathe out, exhaling a daily dose of 16 kgs of air with some additions like water vapour and a few million germs and other micro-organisms.

Then there is the occasional cough and sneeze, and perhaps a digestive burp (and we’re still only counting from one end of the alimentary canal).

In and around greater Nairobi there are about 4 million of us doing this, indoors and out, constantly.

Also, in the same general area, we have about 300,000 vehicles burning (less than efficiently) a couple of million litres of fossil fuels and breathing out five main types of grot: carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, soot, nitrogenous oxides and other chemical junk like sulphur oxides. Thousands of tonnes of these things – daily!

Other and cumulatively larger contributors include any industry that involves mixing, rubbing, grinding or heating anything – paint, solvents, cleaning compounds, printing presses, power stations, trains, planes, pizza ovens, jikos, rubbish burns, grass fires…

Altogether, in greater Nairobi alone we are churning and burning industrial products and processes, wood-based and fossil fuels, rubbish and sewage at a rate of many tens of millions of kilos per day, and a lot of it is hitting the rubbish heaps in steaming, smoking, rotting piles that deliver a non-stop stream of ghastly gases.

There is much that could be done to reduce the volume and toxicity of these outputs by significant amounts. Generally we don’t. Not even where the hazards are greatest and the remedies are simplest. Why, we don’t even bother to measure the problem, never mind solve it. We just keep breathing in and out and in again…

However, if, in this general context, you generate a puff of tobacco smoke on the street, you are committing a crime. Judging by the penalty, this is a crime more serious than assault or theft, worse than being drunk and disorderly, worse than causing an affray or resisting arrest.

It’s up there with breaking and entering, battery causing actual bodily harm, and approaching the level of cattle rustling, arson and doing nasty things with your naughty bits.

The latest laws to protect people from “passive smoking” may be well intentioned. But clearly they have almost nothing to do with passive smoking (one litre of fuel generates as much exhaust as 100 packs (!) of cigarettes. ONE car driving through town = 2,000 chain smokers on the pavement).

If the declared and real objectives of this legislation were the same, and based on a semblance of science, the rules would be very simple. Outdoors – no restrictions, anywhere. Indoors – some restrictions in public buildings where simple designated areas, reasonably ventilated, solve the problem.

For in the full cocktail of outdoor air pollution, the combustion of tobacco is so minuscule that it could not be detected by any known device monitoring the general atmosphere.

Passive smoking warrants attention on genuine “health” grounds only where people are subjected to regular, prolonged and intense exposure – such as staff working at a bar, or in poorly ventilated offices, for many hours, every day.

And the maximum penalty is bizarre. Universally, in no smoking zones there is no penalty – just a polite reminder or, if need be, an insistence to stop, and only if that is not heeded other laws (like breach of the peace) finally take over.

So, the excessive scope and complexity of the new laws (without scientific basis) and the disproportionate penalties only underscore that passive smoking is not, cannot be, the real issue.

The true objective is presumably to demonise direct smoking. If that be the case, why not say so?

And also tell us who we are trying to impress by putting this issue at the top of an agenda in which so many and so much higher priorities are so neglected. And once we’ve impressed this “WHO”, what’s the payback?