Thursday August 11, 2022

Powerful lobby in Imran govt opposed health levy on cigarettes: Dr Zafar

May 27, 2022

ISLAMABAD: Former premier Imran Khan was convinced to levy a health tax on cigarettes but a powerful lobby with vested interests from the tobacco-growing areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in his government prevented him from doing so, former Special Assistant to Prime Minister (SAPM) on health Dr. Zafar Mirza claimed.

“The cabinet of former PM Imran Khan had given approval to levy a health tax on cigarettes, and the amount to be collected had to be used for the prevention of diseases but a powerful lobby of people, hailing from the tobacco-growing areas in KP, strongly opposed it and the levy could not be imposed on cigarettes,” Dr. Zafar Mirza told The News on Thursday after a pre-budget seminar.

Deploring that tobacco usage, including smoking is on the rise in Pakistan in contrast with many other countries in the world, Dr. Zafar Mirza further claimed that even the former finance minister Hammad Azhar, in his budget speech at the floor of the National Assembly, announced to increase and levy new taxes on the cigarettes but ironically, there was no mentioning of such budget proposal in the written speech provided to the parliamentarians and the media.

“I as SAPM on health and later, my successor Dr. Faisal Sultan worked on a health contribution bill, where taxes had to be enhanced on the tobacco products, including cigarettes and sugar-sweetened beverages but perhaps due to change in the government, this bill could not be tabled in the parliament,” he further informed.

In his keynote address at the webinar, jointly organised by the Social Protection Resource Centre and Health Services Academy (HSA) Islamabad yesterday, Dr. Zafar Mirza suggested that it is the right time the government raise this issue with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and try to levy new taxes and raise the existing taxes on harmful products like cigarettes and sugar-sweetened beverages in the coming budget.

“At this point in time, it will be very smart to bring in with our discussion with the IMF, the government’s interest to raise taxes on Tobacco, because we are in a fiscal problem; this will also overcome the political barriers this particular area faces,” Dr. Mirza suggested.

Highlighting the harmful effects of tobacco use and the effectiveness of higher tobacco taxation in the current and future political scenario, he claimed that smoking was on the rise among teenagers as well as women in the country, as around 31 million people were in the habit of smoking in Pakistan.

Renowned public health expert and Vice Chancellor HSA Dr. Shahzad Ali called for ‘disincentivisation’ of the tobacco industry by increasing taxes, withdrawing tax exemptions and discouraging farmers from growing tobacco in KP’s tobacco-growing areas to reduce its supply.

“In the past, incentives were offered to the tobacco industry like other industries, while the farmers in KP’s Mardan and Swabi areas were offered free seed, fertilisers and training to grow tobacco. This needs to end now,” Dr. Khan opined and added that increased taxes could result in hampering the supply of the tobacco products.

Similarly, there is a need to decrease the demand of tobacco products by creating awareness about its hazards, ban on its usage at workplaces, enforcing prohibition of under-age sale and highlighting its negative impacts on health, he added.

Former special secretary Cabinet Division Dr Safdar Sohail highlighted higher taxation as evidence-based strategy adopted by many regional countries with desired outcomes, especially in low and middle-income countries, saying that lessons should be learnt from the countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, China, Philippines, Gambia amongst others.

Deputy Director – Technical at National Health Services Dr. Samra Mazhar highlighted the efforts of the ministry towards protecting the people from tobacco hazards and clarified that the ministry is not the lead agency in the taxation policy, claiming that they are strong anti-tobacco advocates. She further called for continued advocacy for raising Federal Excise Duty (FED) on cigarettes to the Ministry of Finance, FBR and the parliamentarians. Others, including Malik Imran, Country Head Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (CTFK), former director general Customs Intelligence Khalid Mahmood and Dr. Razia Safdar Executive Director Social Protection Resource Centre, Islamabad also spoke.