Implementation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s declaration to make Bangladesh free from tobacco by 2040 is being hampered due to some ‘loopholes’ in the existing tobacco control law.
"Unfortunately, the way the tobacco control activities are going on now, it might not be possible to make the country free from tobacco by the stipulated time declared by the Prime Minister," Prof Dr Md Habibe Millat, MP, Chairman of Bangladesh Parliamentary Forum for Health and Wellbeing (BPFHW) told the Daily Sun.
"That is why it is urgent to achieve a tobacco-free Bangladesh by 2040 by amending the tobacco control law and raising tobacco product prices," Millat added.
Experts claim that tobacco control efforts in the country are being hampered in various ways. Tobacco companies are using CSR activities to market their products and are avoiding the use of pictorial remarks on tobacco packaging. Due to various "gaps" in the tobacco control law, people smoke in public places, tobacco is cheaply available, and electronic cigarettes are occupying markets gradually in the country.
"From the current perspective, a step has been taken to amend the tobacco control law. The amendment will be brought to the law prioritising the provisions of the FCTC," Kazi Zebunnessa Begum, additional secretary (WH Wing) of Health Services Division, told the Daily Sun.
According to a study by anti-tobacco campaigning organisation PROGGA (Knowledge for Progress), although their harmful tobacco products claim 126,000 lives a year in Bangladesh, tobacco companies have tactfully been carrying out different types of CSR activities indirectly.
They are conducting various types of CSR activities, such as tree plantation programme, without even disclosing their names as a tool to divert people’s attention from the harmful effects of tobacco and tobacco products and expand their business, it said.
The PROGGA study said, "The tobacco companies sometimes use CSR activities as a tool to influence policymakers, even in a time of crisis, in the name of standing by the government. They also try to make interference in a bid to weaken the related anti-tobacco laws and policies."
According to the study, the key purposes of CSR activities of the tobacco companies include expanding the tobacco trade and creating a positive image for the particular tobacco brands and companies.
During the COVID-19 epidemic, PROGGA found that tobacco firms offered financial help and contributed masks, personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitizing equipment, and food supplies either directly to the government or its various units, or indirectly through other organisations.
"These gifts were widely publicised in the social and mass media. These phony acts of altruism allow tobacco firms to conceal their role in the death trade while projecting a favorable brand image to policymakers, government officials, and the general public," says the study.
The study said, "Exploiting the loopholes of existing tobacco control law, tobacco companies have been carrying out CSR activities as excuses for establishing contact with government officials, hampering tobacco control activities over all. To put an end to tobacco companies' CSR activities, the existing Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) Act, 2005 needs to be amended in line with the FCTC."
WHO Report on Global Tobacco Epidemic 2021 said 62 countries, including Nepal, Iran, Uruguay, Nigeria, Spain, and Russia, have imposed a ban on tobacco companies' CSR activities.
Some 152 lawmakers in June last year wrote to Health Minister Zahid Maleque demanding an amendment to the Tobacco Control Act to save people’s lives from the harmful effects of tobacco.
In another letter in March last year, 153 MPs urged the Prime Minister to ban the import, production, sale, marketing, and use of e-cigarettes in Bangladesh.
According to a survey by Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) 2017 conducted among people aged between 15 and above, 0.2% of people use electronic cigarettes in Bangladesh. "There are 35.3% of tobacco users in the country, while 18% smoke tobacco and 20.6% use smokeless tobacco," it said.
Prof Dr Sohel Reza Choudhury, head of department of epidemiology and research at National Heart Foundation Hospital & Research Institute told the Daily Sun "Although tobacco control law was amended in 2013 but there are still some gaps in it. The law should be strengthened through bringing an amendment urgently in a bid to implement PM’s vision 2040 to make Bangladesh free from tobacco."
The country’s anti-tobacco organizations have already placed six proposals on the amendment of tobacco control law including – ensuring 100 percent smoke-free environment by prohibiting smoking in all forms in public places, workplaces, and public transport; abolishing 'Designated Smoking Area (DSA)'.
They also demanded banning the display of tobacco products at points of sale, tobacco company ‘corporate social responsibility’ activities, the sale of single sticks and unpackaged smokeless tobacco, the sale and import of e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products; and a provision for stricter rules on packaging including increasing the size of health warnings.
Mentioning that the Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) Act, 2005 which was amended in 2013 is the principal law governing tobacco control in Bangladesh, PROGGA Executive Director ABM Zubair said in many ways aligns with the international treaty, the WHO FCTC, but there are some key gaps in it. "That’s why the existing law needs to be amended."
A study of Tobacco ATLAS estimates that tobacco use caused nearly 126,000 deaths accounting for 13.5 percent of deaths from any cause in Bangladesh in 2018.
Around 1.5 million adults were suffering from diseases attributable to tobacco use and nearly 61,000 children were suffering from diseases due to exposure to secondhand smoking. The estimate of the direct healthcare costs attributable to tobacco use amounts to Tk 83.9 billion annually.
"The annual productivity loss due to morbidity and premature mortality from tobacco-related diseases was estimated to be Tk 221.7 billion. The total annual economic cost thus amounted to Tk 305.6 billion ($3.61 billion), equivalent to 1.4 percent of the GDP of Bangladesh in 2017-18."