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November 18, 2018

‘Illegal trade of cigarettes promoting smoking’


November 18, 2018

LAHORE : Despite Pakistan government’s restrictive measures to discourage use of tobacco especially among the younger generation, the illegal trade of cigarettes is contributing to proliferation of smoking habit among the people in the country.

The Federal Board of Revenue’s (FBR’s) data shows that cigarettes have been a leading revenue generating source of Federal Excise Duty (FED) among other major taxable items such as services, beverages, cement, natural gas, petroleum and edible oils. Over the years, as the prices of tax-paid cigarettes have increased by almost 150 per cent, increasing the price differential between tax-paid and illegal non-tax-paid cigarette packs, therefore, there is an increased incentive for hooked consumers to buy non-tax-paid cigarettes.

It is essential to take effective measures to fight sales of non-taxed product.

Increasing prices through higher excise duties is considered by experts to be the most effective tool to reduce tobacco smoking – especially for young people who are the most vulnerable and who if hooked young may become lifelong smokers. There is clear evidence internationally that even the smokers addicted to nicotine may reduce smoking if the price rises.

The effectiveness of increased excise duty and the consequent increase in prices of cigarettes can be undermined by the cigarettes sold evading taxes. So it’s crucial that measures are in place to combat illicit trade of cigarettes.

Pakistan ratified the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC) in 2004 and acceded to its Protocol to eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products in June 2018.

The WHO’s FCTC, held in Geneva, focused on shaping a medium-term strategic framework, which will determine the actions to be taken by the signatories over the next five years. It will also take a look at the advances and challenges revealed in the Global Progress Report on Implementation of the WHO-FCTC.

This international treaty also supports sustainable development goals, including fighting climate change and defending human rights. Smoking increases the risk of many health problems, such as lung cancer, emphysema and asthma, respiratory infections, heart diseases, diabetes and high cholesterol.

Various steps in the production and disposal of tobacco products also harm the environment and contribute to global warming. People involved in tobacco cultivation can also become ill from the green tobacco sickness - a type of nicotine poisoning that occurs while handling tobacco plants.

Passive smoking has been associated with upper respiratory tract infections and bronchial asthma in children. The WHO estimates that tobacco has the potential to kill more than five million people globally every year. The health risks are widely known but still the use of tobacco is common throughout the world, especially in the developing countries like Pakistan.

The FCTC contains many measures to reduce tobacco consumption, including provision of counselling services for smoking cessation in national health and education programmes. Such counselling services and support groups are not yet available in Pakistan. On the plus side, Pakistan has made progress to put in place restrictions on cigarette advertisements in the country.

It is also expected that there would be an increase in the government's efforts to curb smoking in the future. Comprehensive data is needed for a drive to underpin further steps to curb smoking since a thorough understanding of the smokers' psyche is required. The factors motivating people towards smoking also need to be well-understood and data would be of great importance in designing control strategies that would be best suited to the Pakistani population both at the urban and rural level.

Many causes have already been identified as contributors to the prevalence of smoking in Pakistan. These include peer pressure, social requirements; need to relieve anxiety, stress, anger and frustration and the addictive nature of nicotine in cigarettes. Borrowing cigarettes from friends has also been reported among adolescent smokers. It must also be noted that since the direct advertising of tobacco products is banned in Pakistan, the manufacturers resort to other aggressive marketing strategies which lead to a rise in the purchase of cigarettes and other tobacco products.

The experts have asked the Pakistan government to encourage FBR to bring in policies and strategies to curb illicit cigarette trade. Pakistan needs to put in place a robust and independent control system as soon as possible. This would make it more difficult to sell untaxed packs and would allow the government to promote health objectives by further increasing excise duty. It is evident that progress in this regard has been slow until now as restrictive steps have been blocked by vested interests as well as by the authorities which have so far been unable in imposing a strict tax regime.

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