Loopholes in the existing laws are harming society
It is a long time that the world has been fighting against the tobacco epidemic.
The spread of tobacco is sustaining the vicious cycle of poverty in countries like Bangladesh. In a country where 20.5% of people live below the poverty line (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics 2018-19), a study by non-governmental organization Progga showed that a family here spends around 5% of their total monthly income on tobacco.
This could easily be spent on food, education, or health. Besides, it has long-term health effects that take away an additional 10% of monthly income. Thus, the financial condition of a family fails to improve when clawed away by tobacco.
Under the circumstances, Bangladesh had signed the 2003 World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) project. In 2005, a tobacco law was introduced and it was amended in 2013 and 2015.
To achieve a successful landmark in the Sustainable Development Goals, Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also vowed to make the country tobacco-free by 2040.
However, despite such acknowledgement, the country is still lagging behind in fighting tobacco. The loopholes in existing policy, generations of tobacco myths, and lack of law enforcement are the reasons behind this.
The first myth is probably that the tobacco industry brings us a handsome revenue. It indeed is true that the tobacco industry generates revenue, but there are stories beyond that.
The Bangladesh Cancer Society in 2019 revealed that, while the tobacco industry brought in Tk22,810 crore as revenue, tobacco victims had spent Tk30,560 crore on treatment. This translates to a loss of around Tk7,750cr to tobacco.
In addition to this financial loss, tobacco causes deaths to around 126,000 people and leads 200,000 people to become handicapped by tobacco-related diseases. Alarmingly, the number of second-hand smoking victims is also on rise.
This is why it has become of prime urgency to address the flaws in the existing law.
For example, in the current law, smoking is allowed in public places in designated smoking areas. The law also allows smoking in restaurants and public transportation not confined within four walls. Now, there are many restaurants and coffee shops out there that are not confined within four walls, and allowing smoking zones in those places increases risks for non-smokers.
In most cases, women and children become the worst victims of second-hand smoking.
Secondly, the law restricts all sorts of advertisements by tobacco companies, but it does not specify anything about product display at point of sale (POS). The companies continue to attract consumers at the POS.
Third, the law allows corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities of tobacco companies, which the companies are using to promote their products indirectly.
Fourth, the law has set regulations for smoke-inducing tobacco products, but has not addressed non-smoking tobacco products that have a niche market. At the same time, the availability of loose sticks is making the products easily reachable to consumers.
Fifth, there is no regulation regarding emerging e-cigarette products. Multiple e-cigarette shops in shopping malls and groups in Facebook are evidence of that.
In the end, there is a mention of printing health warnings on the packet, but it does not define the size of the product, or the minimum amount of product it should carry.
The suggestion is simple and easy: Fix the loopholes in our law. But this easy task is made complicated by the interference of the tobacco industry. They try to influence government officials in their favour.
The Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index, 2019 reported that Bangladesh is one of the top three countries with the highest rate of interference from the tobacco industry.
However, what is hopeful among these incidents is that the government has already formed a committee to look after the entire tobacco control law amendment.
Now, all the NGOs and CSO advocates should come together to pressurize and influence policy-makers to make necessary amendments and address this epidemic.
Md Muslem Uddin is a member of parliament, Mymensingh 6.