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June 11, 2021

Chest physicians demand increase in taxation on cigarettes

PESHAWAR: Pakistan Chest Society (PCS), a representative body of chest physicians from Pakistan, has demanded an increase in taxation on cigarettes in the forthcoming federal budget.

Quoting the recent report of Pakistan Institute Development Economics, Prof Nisar Rao from Ojha institute of Chest Diseases said that the total costs attributable to all smoking-related diseases and deaths in Pakistan for the year 2019 were alarmingly high at Rs615.07 billion ($3.85 billion). This amount was five times higher than the overall tax revenue the government generated from the tobacco industry (Rs120 billion in 2019).

Prof Javaid Khan of Aga Khan university said that tobacco kills over 166,000 people every year in the country. Taxation is known to be the most cost-effective tobacco control measure available to governments throughout the world, he added. Prof Khan said that the average excise tax share in the country is 45.4 percent of the retail price, which is much lower than the WHO recommendation of at least 70% of the retail price.

Last year the federal cabinet had approved Rs10 per cigarette pack health levy (sin tax) but for one reason or the other this additional tax was never implemented, he regretted.

Dr Nousheen Iqbal of JPMC Karachi said that despite evidence that higher tobacco taxation discourages tobacco consumption, Pakistan’s tax policy is among the weakest action areas in the country’s fight against tobacco. One possible reason could be that the policymakers, who consider the tobacco industry a major contributor to government coffers, are reluctant to raise taxes fearing the revenue loss, she explained.

She added that the price of cigarettes in Pakistan are cheapest in the world thus encouraging our youth to get hooked on to this powerful addictive substance. Smoking is easier to start but difficult to quit, she warned.

Prof Arshad Javaid, a leading chest physician and former vice chancellor of Khyber Medical University (KMU) Peshawar, said that almost 50% of lung diseases are preventable if smoking is avoided. He urged the government to increase taxes on cigarettes in order to reduce the burden of respiratory diseases in the country.

Tobacco industry (TI) tries to ensure that tobacco products continue to be inexpensive while keeping their profits - at the cost of public health - he regretted. Tobacco companies also use illicit trade as a critical argument against tax increases despite their participation in illegal trade, he added.

Dr Shireen Khan of Bolan Medical college Quetta said that the TI tries to block the implementation of effective tobacco control legislation including taxation by deliberately using fake data. He gave an example of a recent TI media campaign, telling the government that increased taxes on cigarettes would encourage smuggling and thus reduce its revenue.

The most effective way to reduce tobacco use is to raise the price of tobacco through tax increases and to ensure that the tax increases are reflected in prices, explained Dr Khan. Higher prices discourage youth from initiating cigarette smoking and encourage current smokers to quit, he emphasised.