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February 12, 2015

Pictorial health warning to cover 85% of cigarette packs from March 31 onwards

February 12, 2015

Islamabad


In a highly unexpected but welcome development, the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination (NHSRC) Wednesday announced its decision to increase the size of the pictorial health warning on cigarette packs to 85% with effect from March 30, 2014. A notification to this effect will be issued within the next 48 hours.


Announcing the decision at a press conference here on Wednesday, the Minister of State for NHSRC Saira Afzal said, the measure will make Pakistan only the third country in the world, after Thailand and India, where 85% of the cigarette pack will be covered by a pictorial health warning in compliance with Article 11 of the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC).


Under the new measure, cigarettes manufactured and sold within the country, as well as those imported into the country, will be required to have the new pictorial warning on their packs by March 2015. “After March 30, a grace period of 60 days, ending of May 31, 2015 may be allowed to clear old and existing stocks,” Saira clarified. Any manufacturer, importer, distributer, or retailer violating the new law after May 31, shall be proceeded against. She hoped that all stakeholders including the provincial governments shall ensure full implementation of the new measure.


Pakistan introduced textual warnings on cigarette packs in 1979. In 2002, the Prohibition of Smoking and Protection of Non-Smokers Health Ordinance came into force. In 2004, the country signed the FCTC which makes it mandatory for signatories to implement picture-based health warnings. Pakistan announced its decision to introduce pictorial warnings in 2009, but it was not until a year later in 2010, that it actually did so.


A pictorial health warning was eventually printed on 30% of the cigarette pack; while an accompanying text-based warning was printed on 10% of the pack. Both the picture, as well as the textual warning, was supposed to be rotated every six months, which never happened. Tobacco control was thereafter placed on the backburner.


Last year on World No Tobacco Day, (May 31), Saira announced a series of measures to curb the growing epidemic of tobacco use, and then apparently forgot about it. Now suddenly on Wednesday, she invited the media to announce what was being described as a “highly unexpected but welcome move.” However, regardless of the timing of the decision, the measure is sure to raise Pakistan’s profile in the national and global tobacco control community, and that is what eventually matters.


Saira attributed the delay to inter-provincial coordination and processes involving various other government departments. She said, an increase in tobacco taxation would also be announced soon by the designated committee working on the issue.


The new pictorial warning portrays the plight of a patient suffering from throat cancer. The image has already been tested in Thailand, and is evidenced to have perpetrated a decline in smoking. “According to research, a smoker looks at his cigarette pack 7,000 times per year, so we are hoping that a bigger pictorial warning will have a greater impact in deterring new smokers and discouraging chronic ones,” Saira hoped.


Tobacco use is a major cause of deaths worldwide and in Pakistan. The world has seen 100 million deaths in the 20th century from tobacco-related causes. In Pakistan, 100,000 people lose their lives every year from tobacco-related diseases.


Responding to queries on topics unrelated to tobacco control, Saira informed that Pakistan’s first-ever drug pricing policy will be unveiled next Wednesday. She said, the policy includes a mechanism that will bring about a gradual decline in the prices of medicines. Saira also responded to queries about the appointment of a new chief of the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan. In this regard, she threw an open challenge to the media to prove that the appointment has been made in violation of merit.


On another note, the minister of state said that a third-party evaluation of all health programmes is on the cards. With regard to polio, she said that the positive sewage water sample detected in Islamabad is being re-tested for confirmation of the virus. She took pride in having achieved a reduction in refusals, and obtaining improved access to children who were persistently being missed in 2013 and 2014.