Department of Health in unusual company

The Department of Health has found itself in unusual company at the African National Congress’ Stellenbosch conference, running a promotional stand almost alongside South Africa’s largest cigarette manufacturer.

Both the department and British American Tobacco SA — which has its headquarters in Stellenbosch — have hired space in the Network Lounge, an upmarket marquee designed to allow business, government and parastatals to interact with ANC delegates and each other.

Health department representative Joanne Collinge, who was taking a turn manning the booth on Tuesday, was initially unaware of her near-neighbour.

”I suppose we’ve not entirely surprised, given that the organisers seem to have been targeting very large conglomerates, and the tobacco companies certainly are heavyweights,” she said.

”I guess in coming here we asked what would the advantages be for us, not who our bedfellows would be.”

She said she was very glad to see that the smoking laws were being observed in the exhibition area ”and they have given people no excuse to smoke in front of other people.

A very comfortable smoking tent has been set up for people to indulge in their addiction.

Co-ordinator of the Network Lounge Nicholas Wolpe said the smoking area — a separate air- conditioned marquee, with a couch, jazz music, relaxing video displays and prominent tobacco health warnings — was in fact sponsored by BAT.

To deny BAT a place in the lounge just because it was a tobacco company would be undemocratic, and against the spirit of the facility, which was meant to allow people to air and exchange views.

”The important thing is to create a dynamic platform for people to interact and to engage,” he said.

”I think there is a communication divide and this is an opportunity to bridge that communication divide.” The BAT booth in the lounge included a company video, a booklet on ”who we are”, and wall displays, one of which acknowledged smoking was a cause of lung cancer, but also said it generated R5,5-billion a year for the

government in taxes.

”You’ll see later on the minister of finance will come and shake our hand, and the Minister of Health will come and slap our wrist,” joked BAT employee Bradley Sickle, who was manning the booth.

He said BAT had taken a spot in the lounge in order to raise awareness of the company and its activities, including an innovative internal HIV/Aids programme and community empowerment programmes.

”Overall, telling people who we are and what we stand for, instead of just seeing us as big bad tobacco,” he said.

BAT corporate affairs manager Simon Millson, returning from a smoke break, said he had already gone down and introduced himself at the department’s booth.

”We don’t really talk about tobacco on this stall,” he said.

”We’re quite open. Obviously it is presented often that there is conflict (with the department) but most often there is agreement.

”We need to concentrate on solutions, rather than conflict.” – Sapa

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Ben Maclennan
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