Defiant tobacco industry in Pakistan
During decades of doing business, they have not only earned billions of dollars as profit but have expanded their ‘operations’. The operational aspects, besides establishing new production facilities, also include influential expansion.
Claiming to be one of the largest taxpayer industry (similar claims are made by the pharmaceutical industry, soft drinks industry, sugar industry, cement industry and fertilizer industry), the tobacco industry has outwitted many rivals.
It has deep ingresses in bureaucratic and ruling quarters.
Recently, in complete defiance and disrespect for the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), to which Pakistan is a signatory since 2004, a tobacco industry representative “presented” a check for Rs 5 million (a drop in the bucket) to the Prime Minister for dam funds. The tobacco industry hoped to fool the nation one more time and get away with the three-tier taxation system brought in place by the previous government. Thankfully enough – this did not materialize!
The tobacco industry has defied many laws in the past, examples of which include delaying the implementation of SRO 22(KE)/2015. This ordinance desired the tobacco industry to print the warning picture on 85 per cent of every pack (front and back). Defying all customary rules and diplomatic protocols, the then British High Commissioner Philip Barton, on behalf of British American Tobacco (BAT), had met the Finance Minister of the time, Ishaq Dar, to lobby for a revocation of this SRO on March 13, 2015.
Resultantly, an inter-ministerial committee was formed and the implementation was delayed for over two years before new SROs could be issued. The case to this effect is still pending in front of the Islamabad High Court.
The tobacco industry has been in business in Indo-Pakistan subcontinent for over a century now
Two SROs (SRO 127(KE)/2017 and SRO 128(KE)/2017) were issued to deal with the Graphic Health Warning (GHW) on the tobacco. These SROs obligated the tobacco industry, besides other measures, to place GHW on 50 per cent of the pack starting June 1, 2018, and on 60 per cent of the pack starting June 1, 2019.
Pursuant to these, another ordinance was issued on January 22, 2019, to place the gangrene related health warning as shown below:
It is noteworthy that the tobacco industry rolls out over 85 billion sticks every year for consumption in Pakistan. This means hundreds of thousands of cigarette packs are dedicated to deteriorate the national health every month.
It further signifies that the orders to print the GHW were passed in 2017 to be implemented two years later, i.e. in 2019.
During the intermittent period, multiple related SROs and discussions were clear reminders for the industry to plan for the implementation.
However, unfortunately, despite the lapse of almost half the month of June 2019, the SRO has not been implemented. The situation in Islamabad as of writing of this article is that 99 per cent of the vendors (63 vendors were visited in different sectors of Islamabad and Blue Area, whereas another 31 were visited in Rawalpindi) did not know if the new GHW covering 69 per cent of the pack and gangrene pictorial warning, was due to be available by June 1, 2019, or, that they MUST have the new packed stock from the tobacco industry. Their argument was to sell the old stock completely before buying the new stock from the industry.
Sadly enough, the implementation is the weakest link in the entire tobacco control regime. The punitive actions are of the same magnitude for a vendor, wholesalers and manufacturers (Rs. 10,000 as fine). Inherently, there is an injustice in the conception of these penalties. While Rs 10,000 may be a large amount for a street side vendor, it is a small pinch for the wholesaler, not to mention the manufacturer.
Street vendors have learned a lot from their patrons in the tobacco industry. During the recent survey, these vendors were found committing multiple offences, for example small kiosks outside Quaid-e-Azam university or the ones established steps away from NUML, Iqra and other universities were found breaking more than two laws by selling loose cigarettes, selling loose cigarettes to the minors and selling loose cigarettes to the minors near educational facilities. Many were found doing same with Gutka and Paan Parag (the most harmful Indian smuggled gifts for Pakistani youth) etc.
A Rs 10,000 fine for such acts would be a soft slap on the wrist.
We are generally accused of blaming ‘others’ for our follies. This may be true in the case of tobacco control as well. However, when such crimes have cross-border links, the problems must be highlighted. After British High Commissioner’s lobby meeting with Ishaq Dar, Dr Nicholas Hopkinson, a senior lecturer in respiratory medicine at Imperial College, London, said, “Smoking is one of the leading causes of death and ill health worldwide. It is a disgrace that the UK government when it should be showing leadership in tobacco control, is instead assisting the tobacco industry in its attempts to lobby governments in other countries.”
Incidentally, Britain that pioneered tobacco industry on this land and whose High Commissioner has a shameful record of lobbying for tobacco Industry in Pakistan has a plethora of anti-smoking laws in place at home, including a ban on displaying tobacco in small shops, ban on smoking in cars carrying children passengers and selling cigarettes in plain packaging.
Similarly, India, which is an active partner in smuggling (death and cancer) through Gutka and Pan Parag to Pakistan, has a law, which obligates all cigarette packs to have 80 per cent GHW, and smokeless products need to have a pictorial and textual warning. One just wonders why we don’t see the same warning on the Gutka or Pan Parag being smuggled from India to be sold in Pakistan.
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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.