A Brief Note About A Public Smoking Ban in Jamaica

When I first outlined this post, soon after Minister Fenton Ferguson made his announcement in Parliament, I noted 5 areas in which the he and the Government of Jamaica of which he is a member failed. Now one week after the implementation of the smoking ban I see snippets about how the smoking ban is already failing. I see lots of people wondering what the ban is about, what the hell a “public place” is, and a clear indication that the public knows less about this piece of legislation than it should. O, and tourism interests. And the blame for those failings along with whatever other bumps this legislation hits falls squarely on the shoulders of Minister Ferguson. Or does the blame lie with the Permanent Secretary in Jamaica’s Ministry of Health? After all, I’m told, that it’s really the PS who runs t’ings. Anyway, something in me made me hold this post back until now…so here it is with basically the same ideas and arguments I jotted down a couple of days after the announcement was made in Parliament. I am chagrined and disappointed to realize that the pitfalls I noted then are happening in real-time.


Some time at the end of June 2013, the Government of Jamaica announced that it would institute a ban on smoking in “public places.” The effective date of the smoking ban was set at July 15, 2013, a mere 3 weeks from the date of the

Clear messaging is important.

Clear messaging is important.

announcement. Why the rush? Why the sloppy implementation of a public health measure the likes of which have been done several times across the world? Surely if anyone at the GOJ’s Ministry of Health had bothered to do even a cursory search using Google he or she would have found ample examples of how other countries have done public smoking bans…examples, lessons, and guidelines about how to get a smoking ban done and done well. Instead the Jamaican public was inflicted with yet another exercise in poor governance and shortsighted, hurry-come-up thinking.

The first problem with this ban on smoking in “public places” is that the (1) implementation time period and the law’s related definitions are a mess. A hot, steaming, mess. On what planet is it OK to introduce a major piece of public health legislation and set an effective date of 3 weeks from the date of the announcement. THREE WEEKS?! The implementation timeline for this should have been at least 6 months; 9 months would be even better. That would be sufficient lead time to educate the public — a public that includes smokers and non-smokers — about what’s allowed and when, and what’s expected. How about January 1, 2014? An easy date to remember and sufficient time to execute a robust public health campaign; a date that truly allows the Jamaican public to begin fresh. But no, instead Jamaicans got three weeks…hurry-come-up legislation that is therefore ineffective because you cannot implement it, cannot assure compliance with it, and cannot enforce it. A mess, a waste of time…and a glorified show in a whole lotta doing nada. Coupled with this poor implementation time frame is the equally dismal explanation about what a “public place” is. Is it by the traffic light? By a bus stop? In the transit centers? In the markets? Along cruise ship piers? Along Highway 3000? In bars and restaurants? How will this be enforced in private office buildings? Is smoking allowed outside government buildings but only after a certain distance? Has the GOJ really considered just how broad the term “public place” is? Has it considered that the broader the term the harder enforcement is, and that while it must not corner itself with too narrow a definition it must be reasonable with clearly defining a central part of this public health legislation? Or was it merely sufficient to get up in Parliament and make a grand announcement to give the illusion of actually doing work? Pardon me that I am not impressed.

Information is leverage. (Image: drawingbynumbers.org)

Information is leverage. (Image: drawingbynumbers.org)

Next, where is the (2) evidence that a public smoking ban is needed? Far be it from me to expect that a country’s government would offer solid, sound, and clear evidence about why limiting smoking in public places is beneficial to its citizens. And, again, by “citizens” I mean those who choose to smoke as well. Instead it seems as if the GOJ is relying on “well we all know that smoking cigarettes is bad” as the rationale for implementing this legislation. O? No one thought to fire up a computer down at the Ministry of Health to check with the World Health Organization for information on tobacco control efforts? No one thought to look at tobacco control efforts in countries with a tradition of smoking and in which successful measures have been implemented — France, the UK, Ireland are among them? Several U.S. states have done it: California, New York, Washington D.C. No, seriously, no one thought to poll some of the Irish expats to get even their anecdotal take on how a smoking ban was implemented in their country? Or are the Irish merely there to lull the Jamaican public into a coma of free credit? But I digress. So much evidence supporting tobacco control like smoking bans exists. Some public smoking bans have been in place for almost a decade: just consider the rich data on reduced illness and the improved quality of life. And it’s not just evidence about the health costs and benefits of public smoking bans that is to be considered and shared with the Jamaican public. Surely the GOJ recognizes that with legislation such as this, it is crucial to ensure that the private sector — businesses that undoubtedly will be lassoed into the GOJ’s enforcement and compliance activities — is a partner to the legislation. Do not set up an antagonistic relationship with the folks who pay taxes (sometimes) to keep your government running. In addition to the reams of data on health benefits of banning smoking in public there is also a lot of data about economic benefits of smoking bans. And not just the economic benefits of a citizenry that is less exposed to smoking, but also the savings for businesses. A few years ago I heard a news item about a study in Ireland (or it may have been the UK) about how the ban on smoking in bars had an unintended business benefit: it improved the use and longevity of the bars’ musical instruments. No one had thought about smokers’ smoke having an effect on musical instruments… but apparently it did and tracking the ban on smoking in bars showed that less was spent on maintenance and care for those instruments. That’s an outlier. Concrete savings for businesses run the gamut from employees (think of, for example, waitresses) taking less sick days to the costs of maintaining furniture, lighting, and other fixtures. Yes, you Jamaican Business, you can save money with this smoking ban because you’ll be spending less on those maintenance costs. You will earn money by attracting the family or patron that had avoided your establishment because of the smoking allowed in or near it. And there’s another part of the costs to businesses that a longer implementation time and a better presentation of evidence will affect: it is the adjustments that businesses will have to make to accommodate these bans. With a clear definition of “public places” and a longer implementation time a business can decide how to and plan for creating a space for smokers and it can inform its customers about what is now expected of them. To say nothing of businesses that already restrict smoking on their premises: does the new smoking ban law take into account their actions and does the law account for those actions, where they are reasonable and effective, to encourage consistency? In a way such an approach would provide an incentive for businesses to comply: they’ve already done X and need not to do anything else, or they’ve already done half of X and will realize that coming into full compliance is easier than not complying. It’s a matter of carrots and sticks. But, alas, Jamaica is becoming the land of hurry-come-up.

With the presentation of this evidence, GOJ could create public and private-sector buy-in for the smoking ban. It could present a persuasive argument for why this new legislation makes sense. Make the case for why this is good for Jamaica and Jamaicans. The GOJ could then begin to situate the law in a regional context: are we following a pattern or “blazing the trail” (Jamaicans like to blaze trails)? Then, are we (3) falling in line with hemispheric practices? Globally? Hell, what about the jolly ol’ Commonwealth. Better yet, is it that Jamaica is fulfilling its obligations under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control? Maybe this is the much scoffed at “optics” but it all matters…it all matters. Context matters. Framing matters. But…hurry-come-up wins again on The Rock, eh?

got_public_health1Worse: instead of setting a reasonable implementation time frame, guided by clear definitions and a sound argument grounded in hard facts, the smoking ban has come across as a “versus smokers” thing. At least it seems that way to me and I don’t even smoke. Good grief. The (4) focus is all wrong. A hallmark of reasonable legislation is that it accounts not only the benefits that will inure to the majority or a significant portion of a population, but also one that accounts for something even more fundamental: a person’s freedom to choose. People smoke. Let them smoke. There is a lot of information available about the harms of smoking but people choose to smoke anyway. It is their choice and I find no compelling argument for any government to infringe upon the “right to smoke.” This law cannot be a pretext for discrimination. Readers of this blog will realize that I get itchy when I sniff any government even glancing down this path. It is fine for a government to draw the line at youth access and exposure to cigarettes, it is fine to protect those who choose not to smoke…it is not OK to punish those who decide to smoke…simply because they smoke. And that’s something that I sensed with this legislation in Jamaica. It is there though it is subtle and that is sufficient for criticism. The posture of the law seems not to be to protect the public health but to force smokers to quit. No. Protect the public health; set reasonable rules about where one can smoke and maybe even when (e.g. is smoking in parks barred all the time or will it be allowed late at night when fewer people are around and thereby exposure of a significant number of non-smokers is less?). Focus on protecting the public health, which necessarily includes “even” those who smoke. Do not be antagonistic for something like this…it serves no purpose.

A benefit of having a clear and proper focus for any legislation but especially public health legislation is that one can then identify attendant benefits. The first picture in this post is meant to encourage compliance with a smoking ban. But it also cleverly and concisely communicates that by complying, smokers help the library with something: keeping the area clean. Though litter control may not be the underlying rationale for the smoking ban appealing to it does not hurt the smoking ban. And that sign also beckons to a non-smoker too reminding him or her to keep an area clean. Somehow — and I don’t think I’m reaching here — smokers and non-smokers have entered into a partnership of sorts as it concerns litter control by appealing to ownership (“your library”) and a presumably common purpose (cleanliness). Habits that benefit society “at large” are reinforced. Has the GOJ considered that angle with the implementation of the smoking ban, that by either limiting or confining smoking to particular areas, it can begin to address another problem of litter control? Remind smokers about their obligations even as you remind non-smokers about another obligation. Link policy initiatives together not only to streamline messaging but also to reinforce messages and improve compliance…all while lessening your enforcement costs (which includes not only money but also time). That kind of policy linking is, for me, good, effective, and efficient policy making and implementation. Yes, I do believe that efficiency does beat hurry-come-up….

And, of course, the most glaring omission from this entire episode is the (5) lack of any public health education or campaign. Have I missed it? Because public health education is, I think, the most effective way to encourage a change in habits. State your case, give information on why and how habits should be changed, provide resources for those who need it; communicate concisely and clearly. Do not create vacuum of no information or, even worse, misinformation. I simply cannot understand the rushed nature of this smoking ban. It compromises too much and accomplishes nothing. What it compromises the most and to our long-term and greater detriment is the opportunity to educate the Jamaican public (and those who visit Jamaica). The ability to simply provide information on smoking, the costs and benefits of a smoking ban in “public places,” the dates, what will be expected, and how the smoking ban will be enforced. Instead, all the focus is on enforcement not on affecting habits and thinking, two of the important pieces for ensuring compliance. Enforcement should be the last resort, the final choice of a government. Rules and regulations are worthless if the public is not fully aware of them and, most important, what is required of them. No amount of legislation and banning and enforcement activity will net the long-term results that a sound public health education campaign will. None. A government helps itself by educating the public not only about what is required but why it is required.

Too long Jamaicans have been talked at and down to by their governments. And they have allowed it too. This smoking ban is but the latest example of it, an example of piss poor governance.

5 Responses to “A Brief Note About A Public Smoking Ban in Jamaica”
  1. Jhanelle says:

    Smh. Aaaahhh bwoy. I literally just learned of this a week and a half ago and I was like what??? Where is public? Dem verandah? The curb? Why not do a restaurant, hospital grounds, hotels, certain bars etc thing like the rest of the normal world so you can know where the hell to smoke? I don’t smoke either and I hate inhaling it secondhand, but all I do is avoid smoking areas. My next question was smoking what exactly? Just cigarettes or does it include cigars and the variety of things people smoke? I agree with you. A better inform the public campaign should have been launched. They also need to be better enforcing things already written. But lawd oh lawd, di mount a people whe a go get harassed over this now is just gonna be another blog fi u write. Smh. Btw, what are they going to do with the “guilty” folks?

  2. Christopher says:

    This is a brilliant commentary on the issue. Let me add, in addition to this, that the punishments mandated for violations of this are ridiculous- Jamaica has an INSANELY huge backlog of cases in our court system, a broken juror system, and a severely resource challenged police force. So now we’ve given them yet another thing to try and enforce and to clog up the courts. The lack of holistic consideration in this legislation in regards to the larger context of the GOJ and its resources is up there with the Works Agency building a brand new road, and then the Water Commission digging it up the next week to lay pipes (which happens all the time).

    P.S. I’m not a smoker.

  3. This is a practical, well thought out piece of commentary. There are so many things at play in how this ban has been implemented. As you have pointed out the “rush job”, lack of clarity in legislation, lack of public education, lack of research into challenges/benefits of implementation in other jurisdictions (an essential component of the legislative process), lack of creativity in how idea was presented to the public, the “big stick” attitude, seeming lack of respect for freedom of choice, clear lack of thought into how the ban will work in practice and be enforced etc. (ok I realise I’ve ventured into summarising the piece)….

    You know you have an issue with your legislation when ppl still have no idea where they can/cannot smoke. This is so basic and is in fact THE basis of your legislation. If you can’t even communicate this aspect effectively then …what??

    And it cannot be ok that you’re only now reconsidering your folly because a powerful lobby group (tourism)has intervened! Unacceptable on every level!

  4. Sharifa says:

    This makes me cringe as a Public Health Researcher. Ugh!! Time and again the Jamaican govt and people show less than minimal understanding of thinking before acting.

    Did the govt even quantify the issue? I have never thought of cigarette smoking as a major issue on the island…perhaps it is and if so, as you pointed out, an effective ban would’ve been useful. Not what they did.

    My next issue is prioritization of issues. At a time like this I believe public health via safety and security and the physical environment should be a priority. No diss to the smoking ban legislation but one important step at a time. Hey, I guess since they don’t know how to tackle those they leave them alone.

  5. zj stullz says:

    Before this i didnt know Mr ferguson, guess he made his name off smokers, with all the stress him & him government put us through him lucky all inside a parliment we haven’t decide to go light up!

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