Governments propose, Oppositions oppose. That’s a four-word capture of parliamentary tradition. Considering prevalent numbers the outcome is predictable. One cannot fault the opposition for opposing when legislation tabled for vote is of a self-serving nature. And yet, the recent unanimous decision to make it compulsory to carry pictorial warnings on cigarette packets does indicate that there are key areas where bipartisanship can yield tangible results.
This decision is all the more significant since the tobacco industry has a lot of clout, not just in Sri Lanka but the world over. Recently even the Health Minister, stumped in courts, lamented that he realised the dimensions of his true strength vis-à-vis the tobacco industry, just to illustrate the point.
For years, we have had anti-smoking groups, operating with precious little money but with a lot of heart, banging their heads against the industry’s formidable walls. The tobacco industry has built for itself a reputation of invincibility. When it comes to contacts, funds available to run campaigns or counter them, wherewithal to retain high profile legal assistance and such, it was a David vs. Goliath affair.
This David in this instance is plural. There is first and foremost Olcott Gunasekera, an indefatigable champion of important causes that tend to have few takers for reasons of formidability. There is the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC) which has come up with innumerable ways of saying the same thing in countless poster campaigns, year in and year out, decade after decade. They have been trumped again and again. Their hopes have been raised when the present Minister of Health, Maithripala Sirisena did more than offer lip-service to their cause only to find that the champions of the enemy lurk in the most unexpected quarters. It is testimony to their tenacity and vigilance that even after this landmark parliamentary victory they see it only as one piece put right in a larger puzzle. They deserve applause.
The Sri Lanka Medical Council proved that professional bodies can do good when they put their minds to it and that within these bodies are individuals who are ‘untouchable’. One remembers the tireless advocacy of Prof Carlo Fonseka and Dr Diyanath Samarasinghe in this regard. The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) backed them all, especially during the past few months. There were and are several journalists and media outfits that ‘went against the grain’ and were undeterred by the smoke screens put before them. They too were parents to this decision.
And getting back to Parliament, it must be acknowledged that this is where it could have floundered but didn’t. Our representatives came through for the people. Together. For once. That’s potential and potential that can and must be explored to secure other ‘winnable’ victories for society and the future of the nation.
The tobacco industry is down. It is not out. This should not be forgotten.