The Media Alliance in Tobacco Control and Health (MATCOH) – a group of media professionals and practitioners dedicated to the fight against the proliferation, use, and smuggling of tobacco and tobacco products, as well as creating awareness of dangers associated with the abuse of the substance want a probe into circumstances that led to the suspension of a contract between the government of Ghana and the United Kingdom (UK) security printing firm De La Rue.
It would be recalled that in September 2020, the Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA) signed a five-year contract with the UK security printer to create a track-and-trace excise tax stamp system to combat the growling illicit trade in cigarettes, as illicit tobacco products reportedly accounted for about 20-30 percent of total sales in Ghana with over $40million in loses to governments globally.
The deal however went under suspicion and widespread condemnation from civil society organizations and sections of the media when it was revealed that De La Rue also outsourced the contract to Atos – an IT company with strong links to the tobacco industry.
Civil society organizations such as the Vision for Alternative Development (VALD) at the time raised red flags and argued among others that the World Health Organization’s (WHO) fundamental requirements for providers of anti-illicit trade systems is that they are completely independent of the tobacco industry – a sector which has reportedly been found complicit in smuggling its own products.
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Local media outlets especially the Business and Financial Times (B&FT) raised further red flags suggesting that the Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA) awarded the contract to De La Rue in breach of public procurement regulations and transparency.
In an editorial piece, the B&FT also raised concerns over the GRA’s failure to formally update applicants in due time about the status of their proposals and the Authority’s apparently unjustifiable exclusion of certain competitors. The paper further opined that the GRA’s handling of the contract tender particularly the withholding of information breeds mistrust…ironic for an institution whose core values are fairness, integrity and service.
There is also a potential conflict of interest situation that is likely to arise in relation to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) which Ghana is a signatory to. The framework contains guidelines and requirements for the implementation of effective tobacco control measures. Key provisions include a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising, sponsorship, and promotion; strong health warnings on tobacco packaging that cover at least 50% of the principal display areas; protection from second-hand smoke in all indoor workplaces and public places; and measures to reduce the smuggling of tobacco products.
The treaty also addresses a number of other issues, including the disclosure and regulation of ingredients in tobacco products, sale of tobacco products by or to minors, treatment for tobacco addiction, research and exchange of information among countries, and promoting public awareness.
Article 5.3 of the FCTC states clearly that “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law”.
Ghana has since domesticated the FCTC with the promulgation of a full chapter in the Public Health Act to tackle tobacco control issues in the country. It is therefore expected that authorities would ensure strict compliance and not entertain any move to coerce them to trade with Big Tobacco.
It was therefore not surprising that given the above issues raised at the time, the Public Procurement Authority (PPA) temporarily suspended the contract.
The saga however underlines the importance of carrying out transparent tender procedures and selecting fully independent unbiased service providers for vital public health initiatives. What however informed the decision of the Media Alliance in Tobacco Control and Health (MATCOH) to make this call for an independent probe into the saga is the dead silence of government and all other agencies following the public outcry on the issue eight months ago, making it look as if the matter has been pushed under the carpet. MATCOH is of the strongest view and belief that an independent investigation into this matter will bring the matter to a final end.