Thursday February 22, 2024

No tobacco scenes on TV please, Dr. Zafar asks PEMRA chairman

February 18, 2020

Islamabad:The Directorate of Tobacco Control of the Ministry of National Health Services has directed the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to instruct all television channels to immediately cleanse their dramas and programmes of smoking scenes that lure young people towards tobacco use, and to instead consider telecasting public service messages against smoking, which kills 166,000 people in Pakistan each year.

In a letter addressed to PEMRA's Chairman Saleem Baig, the PM's Special Assistant on Health Dr. Zafar Mirza has referred to the Tobacco Control Directorate's findings to the effect that after an earlier decline, there has been a considerable increase in indirect advertising scenes portraying popular artists engaged in smoking. "It is an open secret that such on-screen exposure to smoking, as depicted in dramas, movies, and television shows, has deleterious consequences as it tempts youth to initiate tobacco use," the letter points out.

According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey 2014, almost 24 million (19.1%) adults currently use tobacco in any form. Of these, 15.6 million (12.4%) adults currently smoke tobacco; this includes 3.7 million adults who use water pipes, hookah or sheesha and another 9.6 million (7.7%) adults who use smokeless tobacco. "Among young smokers, two-thirds will become ill as a result of tobacco use unless we can persuade them to quit. More importantly we have a responsibility to deter other children and youth from initiating tobacco use," Dr. Zafar states in the letter, urging PEMRA to take responsible actions in view of the grave statistics in hand, and to "issue needed directions to all TV channels to immediately stop this practice and save the youth of Pakistan" by imposing a complete ban on smoking scenes, and to attach a copy of the said instructions to the Directorate of Tobacco Control.

With 64% of the country's population comprising young people aged less than 30 years and 29% aged between 15 to 29 years, Pakistan needs to be extra cautious in ensuring an immediate ban on all activities and actions that have the potential to promote tobacco use among its youth. "Most long-term tobacco users initiate smoking before 15 years of age and are more likely to suffer from tobacco-related diseases and premature death," the letter flags.

Talking to this scribe, Deputy Director General Health Dr. Minhaj us Siraj, who is also the director of the Smoke-free Cities project, made a special mention of the massive crackdown initiated against sheesha bars. "We have demonstrated zero tolerance to sheesha in Islamabad and major districts of Punjab. Moreover, last month's SRO on point of sale advertisement ban on tobacco products is also aimed towards protecting our children from being allured by marketing gimmicks of big tobacco. If teenagers are not exposed to dramas and movies which display smoking as trendy, masculine or a brainy personality, they will be less compelled to start the evil habit," Dr. Minhaj stated.

Back in 2013 on the occasion of World No Tobacco Day, the then Regional Director of the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region Dr. Ala Alwan had asked several very pertinent questions that remain relevant today, seven years after. "How is it that the tobacco industry has managed and continues to sell a poison that kills nearly 16,000 people a day, nearly 6 million people a year? How is it that it has managed, and continues to package death as life, sickness as health? Simple really! The tobacco industry aims to sell a lifestyle!" he had so rightly articulated. And what better methodology can there be than to show popular actors smoking as a lifestyle?

Evidence has found that 15% of young people aged 13-15 years in the Region own an object with a tobacco company logo or other cigarette branding, while 9% have been offered free cigarettes by a tobacco company representative. Add to this, the constant exposure to smoking scenes on television and big screens and the tobacco industry can be credited for a job well done! It is, therefore, imperative for PEMRA now to take maximum possible measures to control direct and indirect advertising of tobacco use on television channels.

Pakistan, being a signatory to the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and other tobacco control interventions as part of the 2030 UN agenda for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, is under obligation to proactively take measures that restrict tobacco use, now that WHO has categorized it as a threat to development. The global tobacco epidemic kills 7 million people each year, of which more than 600,000 are non-smokers dying from breathing secondhand smoke.