Almost 40 years ago, I was a small-time crime reporter at an English language newspaper and had written a story on the sudden rise of the price of cigarettes produced by a multi-national company.
Embarrassed, the company immediately ceased inserting advertisements, and threatened to throw me out of the job, but refrained from issuing a clarification.
After several months, the newspaper owner apologized to the company’s chief executive to revert the decision on their advertisement ban. To the owner’s relief, the insertion of display advertisements resumed at the cost of a non-incremental of my salary.
This is one incident, among hundreds of incidents, of how the tobacco industry flexes its muscles with the patronage of the powerful ruling party politicians, and under the shadows of influential government bureaucrats.
Even today, the tobacco industry overtly flouts laws and restrictions in tobacco control policies. The government agencies responsible to monitor and punish the delinquent companies are playing the role of three monkeys -- see no evil, hear no evil, and speak to evil.
Well, if tobacco consumption or cigarette smoking pattern is analyzed based on KAP (knowledge, attitude, and practice) framework, then it could be determined that everybody has the knowledge that smoking is injurious to health.
The attitude of smokers tends to ignore the health warnings on smoking, despite some of their friends, relatives, neighbours, and colleagues have suffered from tobacco-related diseases.
Lastly, in practice, despite clear warnings, smokers deliberately smoke in public places, parks, restaurants, mass transports, office buildings, hospitals, and other non-smoking areas. They are rude when there are infants and children around.
Health scientists and researchers have concluded that women and children are the worst victims of second-hand smoking.
There is a need for immediate amendment of laws to control tobacco to achieve the targets set for Sustainable Development Goals -- SDG (2015-2030).
To achieve a successful landmark achievement in the SDGs, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has announced to make a tobacco-free country by 2040.
Despite her promise, the country is still lagging in effectively fighting tobacco consumption. The loopholes in existing rules and policy, and lapses in law enforcement are some reasons behind not reaching the goal.
Earlier, Bangladesh in 2003 signed the World Health Organizations (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) project.
In 2005, a tobacco law was introduced, and it was twice amended in 2013 and 2015 to update restriction and enforcement, which remains a challenge to ensuring a tobacco-free country. The challenge is that the tobacco industry contributes substantial revenue to the national exchequer.
The myth was busted after the Bangladesh Cancer Society in 2019 stated that the tobacco industry no doubt contributes Tk 22,810 crore as revenue, while tobacco-related diseases had to incur Tk 30,560cr in medical bills. Each year, the financial loss is staggering -- an estimated Tk 7,750cr to tobacco-related diseases.
Coupled with financial losses, tobacco-related deaths are nearly 126,000 people, and more than 200,000 become physically disabled due to diseases contributed from tobacco smoking.
On the other hand, second-hand smoking or passive smoking increases a non-smoker’s risk of getting lung cancer, and may also increase the risk of other cancers including the larynx (voice box) and pharynx (upper throat). Second-hand smoke can also cause heart disease.
Therefore, all sorts of advertisements by tobacco companies should be restricted in a bid not to encourage new smokers on display at the point of sales (POS). The tobacco producers continue to attract consumers through product display in POS.
The loopholes in the law allow the corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities of tobacco companies to indirectly promote their products.
The regulation needs to also address the emerging e-cigarette products available in convenience stores, and online markets.
These are the prime reasons to address the flaws in existing law.
First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 23 February 2021
Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @saleemsamad