Monday, 19 July 2004  
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A positive sign

Despite widespread concern that the July 10 Provincial Council (PC) election had a low voter turnout, the latest statistics reveal that this is not exactly so. According to these statistics, more than 57 per cent of voters had participated in the poll.

This is a good turnout and worse percentages have been recorded before. Of course, we have to bear in mind that the holding of two successive elections possibly led to apathy on the part of some voters in addition to the fact the PC election has no direct bearing on the central Government in power.

Nevertheless, more than half of the total number of registered voters have exercised their franchise, reaffirming their faith in the democratic process. Elections, be they for pradeshiya sabhas or the Parliament, are a unique opportunity for voters to raise their collective voice, silently and confidentially. Having elections for various levels of governance is a sign of a vibrant democracy.

Some analysts have called for making voting a compulsory duty for citizens. That does take care of low voter turnouts at the stroke of a pen, but it goes against the very basis of democracy, which is all about choice. Whether one should vote or not depends entirely on the individual concerned. Voters are free to stay at home or vote.

The fact that so many voters chose the latter course of action twice within three months is encouraging. Our voters may not realise the value of elections as they are very familiar with the process. But think of the many dictatorships around the world, where elections are either unheard of or are sham exercises designed to prolong the term of the single party in power. In a true democracy, the ballot has the immense power of actually changing the administration or strengthening it further.

Although the PC elections or local government elections cannot lead to a change in the Central Government, the masses can send a powerful message to the ruling party and to the Opposition by participating in these polls actively. At the most recent PC election, the voters rightly gave a mandate to the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which also won the April 2 General Election. This can be described as an endorsement of the UPFA's policies and programs. The voters' decision is also logical, in the sense that having one party in power at both Central and provincial council levels could seamlessly facilitate development in all regions.

There is no doubt that more voters would participate in local government and provincial council elections if these administrative bodies could be made more public-oriented and efficient. They must launch innovative new projects to serve the residents of their respective areas. They will be more likely to visit that polling station if they can feel a positive change in their lives brought about by these administrative mechanisms.

Going tough on tobacco

Singapore has done it again. Newly-designed cigarette packs carrying gruesome pictures to illustrate the deadly effects of tobacco on smokers have begun appearing there two weeks ahead of a government deadline. Singapore has decided to use shock tactics to scare smokers into quitting after statistics linked tobacco to seven deaths per day.

The new anti-smoking campaign, which officially starts on August 1, has been lauded by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a good example for other Asian countries to follow.

If the new blood-curdling pictures do not veer people away from smoking, nothing else will. The most graphic pictures show a smoker's diseased lung and a stroke victim's brain oozing blood after being split in two. The pictures provided to manufacturers for printing on the packs were real.

Another picture shows a hospitalised man on life support with the slogan "smoking can cause a slow painful death," while another depicts an infant breathing through a tube with the message "tobacco smoke can kill babies." Another shows a mother playing with two children while the father puffs away behind them, meant to warn of the dangers of second-hand smoke. The new graphics must be printed clearly and conspicuously and occupy at least 50 per cent of the total surface area of the package.

As the WHO has suggested, other Asian countries and for that matter, the rest of the world should follow Singapore's example. Most countries including Sri Lanka have made health warnings on cigarette packs mandatory. But these are limited to low-key slogans like "smoking causes heart disease" and "smoking kills". They barely catch the attention of smokers and are disregarded anyway. But real pictures that depict the deadly effects of smoking might have a greater impact.

Such steps are imperative given that smoking-related diseases like cancer, heart disease and stroke are the top killers in both developed and developing countries. Every year, 4.9 million people die due to tobacco use while around 100,000 young people become addicted to tobacco daily.

Regulatory authorities can do more to prevent the tobacco giants from attracting youngsters to this dreadful habit. Such steps will also eventually lead to a reduction in the number of tobacco-related deaths. Stopping all forms of tobacco advertising and sponsorship and totally banning smoking in public areas are among them. The latter is important as passive smoking is just as dangerous. These measures may sound drastic, but tough decisions have to made to tackle the tobacco menace.

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