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Wijeyadasa: Govt. devalued Legislature before judiciary ...queries absence of 185 members at the vote on his Bill

2014 Oct 13

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Member of the UNP Leadership Council, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, MP yesterday said that last Friday’s presentation of a Bill by him titled ‘An Act to amend National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol Act No 27 of 2006’ was in line with a unanimous parliamentary resolution meant to have 80 percent pictorial warnings on the surface of cigarette packets. Therefore, the UPFA had no moral right to make a 360 degree turn, an irate Rajapakshe said.

The Bill was meant to thwart judicial intervention in purely a parliamentary matter, MP Rajapakshe said in a brief interview with The Island. "I intervened because there is a gaping hole in the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol Act No 27. In fact, UPFA members, too, subscribe to my view, hence the decision to introduce the Bill."

The UPFA had conveniently forgotten that SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena, MP, had spearheaded the campaign to have pictorial warnings printed on 80% of the display areas of cigarette packets, Rajapakshe said.

Responding to a query, the UNPer said that he would like to know why the government had changed its position after having voted for the parliamentary resolution against the tobacco industry early this year.

According to health ministry statistics, around 65 individuals between 40 and 50 years of age were dying of smoking-related diseases per day in Sri Lanka and as a result 65 families were losing their breadwinners. Around 21,000 people were dying of smoking-related diseases per annum in Sri Lanka and 21,000 families were left in the lurch. About 60 per cent of cancer patients had developed various forms of cancers such as oral, lung, colon and anal due to smoking in the country, Minister Sirisena told a function held in connection with the anti-smoking walk organised by the Kotte Municipal Council early this year.

Rajapakshe said that vast majority of MPs had skipped the vote on his Bill. The President’s Counsel said out of 225 members, only 40 were present at the time the vote was taken. The Bill was defeated by the government with a majority of 14 votes, with 27 members voting against and 13 in favour. The former Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) said that the absence of so many members at the presentation of a vital Bill was a cause for serious concern. The MP alleged that the government had devalued Parliament before the judiciary.

The government’s vote against the Bill would be a severe setback to ongoing campaign to prevent the judiciary from interfering with efforts initiated by parliament to discourage tobacco smoking, the President’s Counsel said.

The MP proposed to amend Section 34 (1) of the Act by adding the following subsection  as  34 (1) (A): "The pictorial health warning contained in the regulation made or to be made under this Act shall be printed on the top surface area of both front and back sides of every cigarette packet, package or carton containing cigarette and shall cover an area of not less than 80 per centum (80 %) of the top surface area of both front and backsides of every cigarette packet, package or carton."

"In the event of any inconsistency between the Sinhala and Tamil texts of this Act, the Sinhala text shall prevail."

Rajapakshe said that this could be perhaps the only instance a government here acted against an initiative of its own in spite of receiving the Opposition’s backing. After having led anti-tobacco project since 2012, Minister Sirisena couldn’t now turn a blind eye to what was happening in Parliament. The attorney-at-law recalled Minister Sirisena claim that his life was at risk due to his campaign to protect the public.

The MP said that he was digging into the tobacco case as well as the continuing importation of contaminated milk powder in to the country. The UNP official said the tobacco, contaminated milk food as well as agro-chemical industries were making massive profits at the expense of the public. The people were at the mercy of big business enterprises which could even influence the decision making process and Parliament wasn’t an exception, he stressed..

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