health
Wednesday May 05 2021
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Pakistan’s fight against tobacco is getting harder

Illustration by Aisha Nabi.

Pakistan made a commitment in 2005, when it signed the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), to reduce tobacco consumption and ensure the right of people to the highest standards of health.

At the moment, 19.1% of people, over the age of 15 years, in the country use tobacco in any form as per the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an American non-profit organization that advocates for reducing tobacco consumption.

Not only that the Campaign calculates that tobacco kills 118,000 people in Pakistan every year.

Separately, smoking-related illness cost the country more than Rs615 billion per annum, according to the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.

In order to cut smoking, Pakistan has placed a complete ban on advertisements of tobacco and tobacco-related products. The sale of loose cigarettes is prohibited as well as the display of banners and placards of cigarette brands at the point of sale. Also, selling cigarettes near an educational institution is outlawed.

Yet, enforcement is weak. The sale of loose cigarettes is quite common especially to young people, some of whom may be underage.

Then the tobacco lobby is strong enough to push its way through. In fact, last month, the Tobacco Control Cell, working under the federal health ministry, was disbanded for “crossing limits” as per media reports.

Muhammad Arshad, an independent anti-tobacco campaigner, said the biggest blow to the anti-tobacco drive was the abolishment of the government’s Tobacco Control Cell, which has led to an inordinate delay in increasing graphic pictorial warning to 85% on cigarette packs and the imposition of health levy at the rate of Rs10 on a cigarette pack of 20.

The TCC, Arshad adds, was penalized because they were raising a voice against the tobacco lobby.

The WHO’s FCTC urges that the most cost-effective way to reduce tobacco consumption is to increase excise duty on cigarettes. This will make them unaffordable and out of reach for a large group of people.

But the tobacco industry argues that with an increase in prices of well-known cigarette brands, tobacco-users will turn to cheaper, smuggled or non-duty paid cigarettes.

Madeeha Pasha, manager corporate affairs at the Pakistan Tobacco Company, calculates the volume of illicit trade to be Rs77 billion in the country, while the Federal Board of Revenue puts the figure at Rs24 billion.

But anti-tobacco campaigners say these figures are greatly exaggerated.

Malik Muhammad Imran, the country representative of Tobacco Free Kids, argues that the tobacco industry has constantly lobbied against tax imposition citing concocted figures. He adds that last year Pakistan scored 0.88 on a five-point scale of a cigarette scorecard of Tabacconomics, a data research centre.

Pakistan’s score was the lowest out of 170 countries. This demonstrates that the country had not been able to effectively tax cigarettes to increase revenue and discourage consumption. Even the World Bank, Imran adds, has suggested the government impose at least 30% tax on tobacco products annually.


Ahmed is a special correspondent with The News on Sunday.