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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Control tobacco to fight the myth

Loopholes in existing laws need to be addressed


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 Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Re-interpreting Professor Ahmed Sharif


A century after his birth, there is much we can learn from him

The centenary of veteran scholar Professor Ahmed Sharif passed silently on February 13.

Dr Sharif, the legendary figure of the free-thinking movement in the country, was born on February 13, 1921 and died on February 24, 1999. He did his Masters and PhD in Bangla literature from Dhaka University in 1944 and 1967, respectively.

Dr Sharif was a celebrated academic, intellectual, and philosopher, who had immensely contributed to nation-building, enabling the creation of space for intellectual exercise for free-thinkers.

In present Bangladesh, there is a serious impediment to the intellectual exercise of free-thinkers. The absence of space for freedom of thought is rapidly reducing which is indeed alarming for a democratic society.

He was an outspoken rational humanist, who left behind a legacy for dissent, critiquing reactive and autocratic views and vehemently rejecting sectarian politics.

He was indeed a controversial and mostly misunderstood person. His thoughts were interpreted as anti-establishment and were thus blacklisted by the state-run electronic media.

The absence of non-conformists such as Dr Sharif is felt today, with the rise of the Islamists, along with reactionary elements and anti-liberation groups showing their fangs.

The dark forces are active for a deadly strike to undermine secularism, democracy, pluralist society, and freedom of faith, for which the 3 million martyrs sacrificed their lives for the independence of Bangladesh.

Dr Sharif joined as a Research Assistant in the Bangla Department, Dhaka University in 1950, and retired as Chairman from the Department in 1983.

Obviously, he was very popular among his colleagues and academics. He was elected as member of the Senate and Syndicate, President of the Teachers’ Association and the University Teachers Club. He is the only academic who was elected Dean of the Faculty of Arts for three consecutive terms.

Indeed, he received many accolades and recognition for his outstanding contributions in medieval Bangla literature and contemporary socio-cultural-political essays.

Among the prestigious accolades, was one given by Rabindra Bharati University, India, and conferred upon him, Doctor of Literature, in 1995 for his outstanding contribution to Bangla Literature. Dr Sharif was an authority on ancient and medieval Bangla Literature and authored more than 100 research publications.

He never bothered about appreciation for his scholarly works. On the other hand, no one has ever questioned his intellectual honesty, although many pseudo-liberal democrats and secular intellectuals of the country rejected his scholarly contributions and suppressed his free thoughts.

His able academic son Dr Nehal Karim (former Chairman of Dept of Sociology of Dhaka University) aptly said: “He was considered an impractical man, seized with radical ideas but never 'clever' enough to understand his mundane interests as he never took any advantage of his scholarship position nor wielded his influence to become wealthy, famous, or powerful.”

Whatever Dr Sharif stated often caused a furore among intellectual circles and strong rebuttal for the vested groups.

The reputed educationist maintained a secluded life to avoid the wrath of the reactionary and reactive groups in the public domain.

For his outspoken statements against sectarianism, autocracy, and fascism, invited threats, especially when the Islamists and radicalized Muslims declared him as “murtad” (apostate).

Dr Sharif never compromised due to threats and intimidations. He was himself an institution and will be remembered for his modern thoughts.

Surely, his contributions to society will encourage liberal democrats and progressive intellectuals immensely. His huge scholarly contributions will surely enrich the researchers of Bangla literature in the years to come.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 15 February 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at Twitter @saleemsamad

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Checkmate for Suu Kyi

Her failure to own up to the crackdown on the Rohingya has sullied her reputation


A military coup in Myanmar was imminent for two reasons, which immediately invited widespread protests within the country and international condemnation.

First, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) since they took the reign of the country in 1962 failed an “election engineering” plan in favour of a pro-military political party. Secondly, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi gained popularity which brought her confidence in further reforms to democratize the nation, which the military generals were watching with frowns.

Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest in the struggle to bring democracy to Myanmar, has been detained along with other leaders of her political party in a military coup.

Meanwhile, the anti-military coup protests swell in Myanmar, and riot police battle demonstrators in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw and cities and towns across the country.

The supporters of Suu Kyi, leader of the pro-democracy National League for Democracy (NLD), call for a campaign of civil disobedience -- amidst a blockage of Facebook, fearing further anti-military street protests.

The Buddhist monks, doctors, nurses, teachers, have openly joined protests against the Myanmar coup, which has surprisingly grown louder every hour, since the military coup on February 1.

Myanmar has been a country of military coups and military rule -- shortly since independence from British colonialists in 1948.

In an uneasy power-sharing agreement in 2008, the military made a political partnership in running the country. The army had 25% of the seats in parliament.

Well, the 2015 elections established the road to democracy and installed the first civilian government after 50 years of global isolation and a ruthless military regime.

The February coup derails years of Western-backed efforts to establish democracy in Myanmar, where neighbouring China also has a powerful influence.

China was conspicuously silent in condemning the military coup, which occurred hours before parliament was due for the maiden session since the NLD’s landslide win in a November 8 election.

China was sceptical in strengthening bilateral relations with Myanmar, keeping Suu Kyi in power.

Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD won 396 seats out of 476 in the upper and lower houses of parliament, which has been interpreted by political observers as a referendum on Suu Kyi’s fledgling democratic rule.

Well, the main opposition party, the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), bagged only 33 seats (nearly 7%) in the last elections, eight fewer seats than in 2015.

In response to military chief General Min Aung Hlaing’s claim that the November poll was an “election fraud,” however, Myanmar’s Union Election Commission rejected the claims of voter fraud.

The defenders of democracy fear that Myanmar’s army is likely to scrap the constitution, despite the army chief Gen Hlaing saying the 2008 constitution was “the mother law for all laws” and should be respected.

Its guarantee of military power makes the constitution a “deeply unpopular” document, according to Yangon-based political analyst Khin Zaw Win.

On top of the military junta’s strings of accusations against the pro-democracy leader, Suu Kyi is already accused of ethnic cleansing and genocide of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim population, which the United Nations said had “the hallmarks of genocide.”

She took the responsibilities for the infamous military crackdown on the Rohingya and denied genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and explained the claims as “incomplete and misleading.”

Soon after shouldering responsibilities of the Myanmar military, Suu Kyi fell from the grace of world leaders and as an icon of democracy, primarily because she mishandled the crisis when more than a million ethnic Rohingya fled the restive Rakhine state into neighbouring Bangladesh in 2016 and 2017, which the United Nations dubbed as a “textbook ethnic cleansing.”

While still hugely popular at home -- the daughter of the independence hero Aung San (who was assassinated in 1947) -- her international reputation has been damaged after she failed to stop the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from the western Rakhine State in 2017.

To judge whether she has failed the world, the democratization of the country, or is a saviour of the nation from the yoke of the military, is a matter of time.

First Published in the Dhaka Tribune, 10 February 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at Twitter @saleemsamad