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Friday June 21, 2024

No Tobacco Day 2024 — A journalist’s journey from tobacco addiction to freedom

By M. Waqar Bhatti
May 27, 2024
A representational image shows a person holding a cigarette between the fingers. — AFP/File
A representational image shows a person holding a cigarette between the fingers. — AFP/File

KARACHI: With World No Tobacco Day 2024 just around the corner, I feel like recounting my journey from addiction to freedom. My journey began in 1992, when Pakistan had won the Cricket World Cup, which had been sponsored by a well-known multinational cigarette manufacturer.

Advertisements gave the impression that every cricketer was a smoker, influencing my perception of smoking. By the 1996 Cricket World Cup, which had also been sponsored by a multinational cigarette producer, I had started smoking, heavily influenced by continuous tobacco advertising on TV and billboards, and in newspapers and magazines.

During school and college I had spent all my pocket money on cigarettes, and stolen from my mother’s purse, borrowed from my friends and even taught children to fund my habit.By the year 2000 I was smoking around 20 cigarettes a day. As a journalist, my habit grew to 30 cigarettes daily, with most of my income turning into smoke and ash due to my nicotine addiction.

By 2013, after 17 years of smoking, I realised I had become lazy and irritable. My health was deteriorating, and I was struggling with daily tasks. I used to smoke before breakfast, multiple times before lunch, and throughout the day and night, ignoring “no smoking” signs at work and in public places.

By 2015 I noticed smoking had severely impacted my life. I was depressed, irritable and had difficulty walking or climbing the stairs. My performance at work had declined, and my family life was suffering as well. Realising I had become impotent at 35 was a wake-up call.

Deciding to quit smoking was challenging. Even thinking about quitting used to cause anxiety. However, a pulmonologist helped me by suggesting I repeatedly tell myself to quit.

On January 17, 2016, I finally stopped smoking with the help of Chantix (a medication for smoking cessation), bubblegum, family support and divine strength. The cravings were strong, but my mantra for quitting helped me overcome the addiction, and I now detest smoking, despite occasional deceptive dreams of smoking.

Over the years I have understood the significant health risks of smoking, including lung cancer, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory illnesses and other chronic conditions. In Pakistan, with alarmingly high smoking prevalence, addressing this public health crisis through effective policy measures is imperative. One such measure is making cigarettes more expensive and less accessible through robust taxation.

Pakistan’s smoking rates are worrying, with 830 billion cigarette packs being consumed annually. This high rate of tobacco use leads to substantial health burdens, including increased healthcare costs and productivity losses due to smoking-related illnesses.

The consequences of smoking not only affect the smokers themselves but also the society at large through second-hand smoke exposure and the economic impact of treating tobacco-related diseases.

The Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) has implemented a tiered tax system for cigarettes, with tier one taxed at 145 per cent, and tier two at 146 per cent. Despite these taxes, the total tax collection from cigarettes is Rs240 billion. However, the potential to significantly increase this revenue exists.

Stringent measures are needed to curb the illegal tobacco trade, particularly at critical points like the Azad Jammu and Kashmir border. Another step to curtail smoking can be the imposition of 35 to 40 per cent tax on cigarettes in the budget 2024-25.

Enforcing adherence to the minimum legal price set by the FBR (currently Rs127.44 per pack) is crucial. Ensuring all tobacco products are sold above this threshold will discourage the sale of cheaper, illicit products, and maintain market integrity. This enforcement will help reduce smoking prevalence by making cigarettes less affordable and boost legitimate tax revenues.

Increasing the tax on cigarettes is a proven strategy to reduce the rate of smoking. Higher taxes make cigarettes more expensive, deterring initiation among non-smokers, encouraging current smokers to quit, and reducing overall consumption. Additionally, the revenue generated from increased taxes can be allocated to public health initiatives, further amplifying the benefits.

To effectively reduce the rate of smoking and mitigate its health impacts in Pakistan, a multifaceted approach is needed. This includes enforcing robust tax policies, addressing illicit trade, and ensuring compliance with minimum legal pricing.

By making cigarettes more expensive and out of reach for many, the government can protect public health, reduce the burden of tobacco-related diseases, and increase tax revenues for health programmes. This approach will not only curtail smoking but also promote a healthier, more prosperous society.