Tuesday, 3 October, 2023

Achieving Dream of a Tobacco-free Bangladesh

A.K.M. Atiqur Rahman

Achieving Dream of a Tobacco-free Bangladesh
A.K.M. Atiqur Rahman

World No Tobacco Day was observed yesterday. In 1987, World Health Organisation (WHO), at its assembly, passed a resolution calling for 7 April 1988 to be ‘a world no-smoking day’ as an urge to the tobacco users to abstain from using tobacco products for 24 hours with the hope that it might inspire those who were trying to quit this habit. From that experience, the WHO passed another resolution in 1988 on celebration of World No Tobacco Day every year on 31 May. Since then, this day is observed every year by all member states of the WHO, including Bangladesh, to make people aware of the dangers of using tobacco and their rights to healthy living as well as to draw global attention to the severity of the tobacco epidemic. The day has been met with both enthusiasm and resistance around the globe from governments, public health organisations, smokers, growers, and the tobacco industry.

This year's theme for World No Tobacco Day is- 'Tobacco: Threat to our environment'. The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness among the people on the environmental impact of tobacco, from cultivation to production, distribution and waste. The campaign also aims to expose tobacco industry’s effort to ‘greenwash’ its reputation and products by marketing themselves as environmentally friendly. According to available information, with an annual greenhouse gas contribution of 84 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, the tobacco industry contributes to climate change and reduces climate resilience, wasting resources and damaging ecosystems. Around 3.5 million hectares of land are destroyed for tobacco growing each year, which contributes to deforestation, especially in the developing world. The land used for tobacco cultivation, due to soil degradation, cannot support cultivation of other crops.

In my writing on this page of the daily Sun in 2018 World No Tobacco Day, I mentioned the name of our neighbouring country Bhutan, which is a tobacco free country. One cannot find any shop selling bidi or cigarettes in Bhutan. There is no way to buy it. Bangladeshis, who visited Bhutan, might have observed this. However, it was not so easy to make the country tobacco free. Government and the people jointly worked with strong commitment to reach that goal. Perhaps, Bhutan is the only tobacco-free country in the world. Besides, there are some countries where smoking is prohibited in public places and certain establishments. If anybody violates the restrictions, he/she has to pay the fines or to accept the legal implication.

Is tobacco essential for our survival?  Does it play any role in keeping our body fit? Does it possess anything like other medicinal herbs or plants? Then, why is it cultivated around the world? For whose interest the cultivation of tobacco is still continuing? Those lands should be used for cultivation of those products necessary for human or animal consumption. Bangladesh, a smaller-sized country with a population of 160 million. It is not only unwise to use its lands for tobacco cultivation, it is a crime. We should feel the urgency of making its lands free from tobacco cultivation so that those lands could be used for food production.

Tobacco, an item injurious for health, should not, in any way, come into consideration for cultivation as well as marketing in Bangladesh. We cannot afford the burden of treatment for the tobacco users. How much money does our tobacco sector add to our national income? Is it more than the lives of those people who kill themselves from smoking? Smoking is nothing, but just an attempt to proceed to suicide. Then, it is a crime. Will we allow our people to continue this crime? Certainly not.

According to a study of Bangladesh Cancer Society, nearly 126 thousand people died (13.5 per cent of total deaths in the country) due to tobacco-related diseases in 2018 in Bangladesh. In 2020, the deaths crossed 161 thousand. In fact, this figure is bigger than the death toll from the ongoing devastating COVID-19 catastrophe. There are about 1.5 million adults suffering from tobacco-attributable illness. More than 61,000 children (below age 15) are suffering from diseases caused by exposure to secondhand smoke.

The study further found that the total economic cost for healthcare and productivity loss due to morbidity and premature mortality from tobacco-related diseases was about BDT305.6 billion, which was equivalent to 1.4 per cent of country’s GDP in FY 2017-18.  Whereas, the contribution of the tobacco sector to our economy for that period was BDT229.1 billion. That means, the tobacco sector is economically a losing concern for our economy. In addition, as the study said, there are costs of the environmental and health damages from tobacco cultivation, loss of food security due to use of scarce land resources for tobacco growing, smoking-related fire hazards, environmental pollution from tobacco manufacturing and the littering of cigarette butts, etc.

Bangladesh can easily save this huge expenditure if bans are imposed on tobacco cultivation, production, marketing in the country. This initiative will not only save the lives of thousands of people, but will also protect our environment and increase our food production. In that consideration, we should start our journey from this special day. No tobacco should be sold anywhere in Bangladesh so that smokers have to refrain from smoking on this day. Bangladesh can also start ‘smoking free country’ practice at least for one weak in every month as a part of our ultimate programme. It might be a continuous effort to encourage our smokers to leave this habit. In addition, necessary programmes/projects should be taken to rehabilitate those people who are engaged with the cultivation as well as production of tobacco.

On 18 May, a 3-day conference titled “Members of Parliament Conference for Achieving Tobacco-Free Bangladesh by 2040” was inaugurated in Cox’s Bazar organized by Bangladesh Parliamentary Forum for Health and Wellbeing (BPFHW) with the support of Shastho Shurokkha Foundation and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Bangladesh. The objective of the conference was to discuss the scope and ways to make Tobacco-Free Bangladesh by 2040 as announced by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The conference came out with a 16-point declaration that includes all indoor public places and public transport should be 100 percent smoke-free, sale of single sticks, unpackaged or loose tobacco or smaller packs, complete prohibition on the import, export, manufacture, distribution, sale, and marketing of e-cigarettes, heated tobacco products, oral nicotine pouches and other emerging tobacco and nicotine products, etc.

It is not understood why the world leaders do not feel the necessity of imposing a ban on cultivation of such a product that can only kill people. If that could be done, there would be no need for the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Until that initiative, tobacco cultivation and usage could not be eradicated from the world. Bangladesh is a signatory of that WHO convention and has also passed the Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) Act in 2005 (amended in 2013) and Rules in 2015. All these formalities are praiseworthy, but there is no such commendable success that can give us hope to see a tobacco free Bangladesh in the coming days. Anyway, we have to bear the losses of thousands of lives every year. If our government is not strict on this issue, Bangladesh could never be a tobacco-free country.

On this day, the world leaders should come forward with the promise of making the world free from the death-blow of tobacco. The sooner we can do that, we will be able to save millions of people from the severity of tobacco products as well as maintain a healthy environment and ecosystem. Please ensure us the right to health and healthy living that will ultimately protect our future generations.


The writer is former ambassador and retired secretary