Page last updated at 09:23 GMT, Friday, 11 July 2008 10:23 UK

Stringent law for Kenyan smokers

By Juliet Njeri
BBC News, Nairobi

Kenyan office workers smoke in a designated area in central Nairobi, May 2008
Even designated smoking zones could be under threat

Kenyan smokers are now an endangered group, because of a tough new law banning smoking in many public and private places across the country.

The Tobacco Control Act came into effect on Tuesday, making it illegal for smokers to indulge their need for a puff virtually anywhere - including their own homes.

Aside from bars, offices, theatres, streets and places of worship, smoking is also now banned in parks, markets and private cars.

The law sets out hefty penalties for those caught in breach of the rules - prison terms of up to three years and a maximum fine of $46,000 (23,000).

Several municipalities banned public smoking last year. Smokers in the capital, Nairobi, have had to huddle around designated "smoking zones" around the city.

The new law restricts smoking to sealed and ventilated rooms, so smokers fear even these zones could be threatened.

But smokers are defiant, and many say they will not stop smoking because of the new law.

'Smokers rights'

Michael Otieno, who has been smoking for more than 10 years, says the government should have designated more places where people can smoke "without being harassed".

"Smokers have their rights as well," he says.

"It's definitely more uncomfortable to smoke but I don't think I'm going to stop just because someone says I should."

Kenyan smokers should learn to choose where they smoke. You can't go lighting up just anywhere.
Naima, smoker

Several East African countries have introduced smoking bans, but Kenya's seems to be the most stringent.

The government hopes that the punitive new law will encourage smokers to quit the habit and reduce smoking-related deaths.

Health ministry statistics show tobacco kills about 12,000 Kenyans each year.

"In terms of tobacco, you are protecting the smoker and you are also protecting people around the smoker," says James Nyikal, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation.

The Jevanjee Gardens, right in the centre of Nairobi, hosts one of the city's few smoking zones.

In a corner, a group of about 30 smokers enjoy the chance to smoke without fear of arrest.

They shy away from speaking to journalists. As soon as they spot the camera, down go the butts and everyone moves away - perhaps they are tired of all the attention.

Sydney agrees to stop and talk.

"The law doesn't bother me because I always come to the designated zones when I want to smoke," she says.

"Besides, I think it's good because it will encourage some people to stop smoking. I'm also trying to quit."

Industry fears

While supporting the new law, some non-smokers also sympathise with smokers.

"I support it because passive smoking is dangerous. But smokers also have rights and they should have designated places where they can smoke," Grace Kimiti says.

There are many ways to kill a cat. If I want to smoke, I'll just go to the roof tops
Mbugua, smoker

Despite being a smoker herself, Naima welcomes the law because she thinks Kenyan smokers have poor smoking etiquette.

"Kenyan smokers should learn to choose where they smoke. You can't go lighting up just anywhere. Once I was carrying my baby and a man came and lit a cigarette right next to me. That's so wrong," she says.

The tobacco industry has previously criticised the regulations, saying they lacked proper guidelines.

Last year, Kenya's High Court postponed the ban for a year after companies complained they had not had enough time to print health warnings on cigarette packets.

The new law seeks to fill loopholes and provide proper legislation.

It enforces restrictions on the sale of tobacco products to children under 18 and the sale of single cigarettes.

Cigarettes must now be sold in packets of at least 10, with a health warning in both English and Kiswahili on the front and back of the pack.

Keith Gretton, from British American Tobacco (BAT), says that while the firm is not opposed to the ban on the sale of single cigarettes, this will be difficult to enforce.

There are also widespread concerns about the effect on the tobacco industry, from farmers to factory workers.

"BAT earns the government a lot of money and banning smoking is very, very bad," says Zack, a former smoker.

About 300,000 Kenyan farmers grow tobacco, producing about 20,000 tons of tobacco leaf a year.

If Kenyans start kicking the smoking habit as a result of the new law, that could lead to job losses.

Singles ban

For many Kenyans, especially those in the low-income bracket, smoking is an expensive habit, which makes the sale of single cigarettes very popular.

Kenyan cigarette vendor
Vendors have been banned from selling single cigarettes

The changes could therefore affect small vendors such as street hawkers, for whom cigarettes are a fast-selling commodity.

Alex, who owns a shop along a busy Nairobi street, says sales have dropped - but only marginally.

"People have not stopped smoking. It's taken them a day or two, but they're adjusting to the new rules," he says.

Several people come up to Alex's shop asking to buy single cigarettes, but Alex shakes his head and tells them they have to buy a whole packet.

One of the customers asking for single cigarettes is Mbugua.

"I am not going to stop smoking just because of the law. In any case, there are many ways to kill a cat. If I want to smoke, I'll just go to the roof tops," he says.

After thinking about it for while, Mbugua finally buys a full pack of cigarettes.

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