The easy buys

June 7, 2020

It’s time anti-tobacco laws were enforced with a stricter hand

Pakistan is a rare country where cigarette consumption increases when the prices are jacked up.

On the evening of June 1, a host of young boys stood lazily outside a small, congested shop in Krishan Nagar, Lahore. Another couple of them had parked their vehicles randomly in front of the store. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves and bonding over soft drinks and puffs of smoke. It transpired that the said shop was a popular haunt for the youths of the area who were able to buy cigarettes in loose from there.

According to the law, loose cigarettes cannot be sold; the retailers can only offer whole packs. The idea is to keep the cost of tobacco high so that it is not easily affordable, especially for the youth. Affordability is the biggest incentive for smokers.

At another karyana store, a minor was refused a cigarette. But when the little boy told the shopkeeper that he was purchasing the cigarette for his father, he was instantly handed a bunch.

Such scenes are common in the city. There’s no one to stop and take action against those selling cigarettes in loose form, even though health officials are empowered to enforce the law. The outgoing week was marked as No Tobacco Week the world over. The above mentioned violations, which are a routine now, make a mockery of international days or weeks and their objectives.

Smoking is injurious to health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 175,000 [approx] people die every year in Pakistan because of various coronary and pulmonary ailments caused by smoking. Smoking is prohibited in public places, shared spaces, public transport and at government offices. But people are routinely found violating the law. Drivers of mass transit buses, for instance, are seen smoking in the presence of passengers.

Habib Ahmed, who runs a mini bus, says he cannot drive without smoking. “It [nicotine] runs in my blood,” he declares. “At times, the passengers ask me to quit. I tell them that if I did, you’d meet with a road accident. Cigarettes are the road runners’ best companions.”

The law also dictates that cigarettes cannot be sold in universities, colleges and schools. Besides, there can’t be a tobacco shop in the vicinity of an academic institution. According to a student at a private college, “Our support staff, including peon and security guards, get us cigarettes on campus.”

Malik Imran, country head of the Tobacco-Free Kids (TFK) campaign, is of the view that teenagers are the main target of cigarette manufacturing companies. “On a daily basis, around 1,200 children in Pakistan take to smoking,” he tells TNS.

He blames the easy purchase of cigarettes for the situation: “The shops tempt the young with cheap and easy buys. Packs of cigarettes are cleverly placed in the shelves close to cash counters where they are visible to the customers.”

He urges the government to increase the prices of cigarettes so that at least the some of the youngsters cannot purchase them with their pocket money.

Pakistan is perhaps the only South Asian country where cigarettes are sold cheap. In India, the prices of cigarettes are said to be three times higher than what these are in Pakistan, while in Sri Lanka, these are 10 times higher. Imran says that smokers spend up to 40 percent of their earnings on buying cigarettes. “This is a staggering amount; they should be spending it on the education of their children.”

He also speaks of taxation as a key deterrent: “The government should be discouraging smokers by raising taxes [on cigarettes]. Instead, it offers tax relief to the tobacco industry.

Pakistan is perhaps the only South Asian country where cigarettes are sold cheap. In India, the prices of cigarettes are said to be three times higher than what these are in Pakistan, while in Sri Lanka, these are 10 times.

“The lobbyists for the big tobacco companies tell the government that if taxes on tobacco products are increased, the prices of cigarettes will go up and this could lead to illicit trade, because people will go for smuggled cigarettes available at cheaper rates.”

Imran insists that the income tax share of tobacco companies is less than other industries. “Tobacco companies collect Federal Excise Duty [FED], and give it to the government of Pakistan. Those who smoke, pay the FED. Last year, the companies collected Rs 115 billion and gave it to the government.”

Quoting figures given by the Pakistan Health Research Council (PHRC), he says that the health cost burden on Pakistan’s economy is Rs 192 billion, thanks to tobacco consumption. This means the healthcare expenditure is more than the taxes received.”

The country head of TFK is concerned about the fact that tobacco industry representatives would be meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan, despite the fact that under Article 5.3 of Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), “no government can involve representatives from tobacco industry in policy making.” As such, their meeting with the PM, ahead of the budget, is a clear violation of the FCTC. (Pakistan is signatory to this convention.)

Cigarette is the first step towards substance abuse, says Akmal Ovaisi Peerzada, chairman of the Civil Society Network (CSN). “It [cigarette] is an evil that should be nipped in the bud.”

Unfortunately, as Peerzada points out, leading cigarette manufacturing companies have managed to convince the government through their experts, training sessions, seminars on policy makers, and media campaigns projecting Pakistan as a rare country where cigarette consumption increases when the prices are jacked up.

“But the principle of economics remains that high prices reduce demand,” he adds.

According to Peerzada, the government should not accept what the industry is telling it. “More taxes will generate greater revenue, and discourage the purchase of the harmful product.”

He also calls on the government to enforce the existing anti-tobacco control laws with an iron hand.

Dr Ashraf Nizami, president of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), says: “Smoking badly affects your lungs. “Amid the pandemic, the smokers are even more vulnerable, as Covid-19 directly attacks lungs.

“It is wrong to assume that coronavirus won’t harm younger smokers. Today, we see how the youth as well as children are being infected. Companies are selling poison in the name of cigarettes.”

“Smoking affects children’s hormones and, thus, inhibits healthy growth.”

In response to a query, Nizami says the law prohibits the sale of tobacco products within 50 metres of schools and universities. Similarly, cigarette manufacturing companies are barred from displaying posters, billboards, buntings or any other promotional material outside an outlet that identifies itself as a general sales point.

A doctor, working with the Health Department, says on condition of anonymity that tobacco manufacturing companies are an influential lot. “That is why, no government has been able to take action against them.”


The writer is a reporter at The News, and can be reached at [email protected]

The easy buys: It’s time anti-tobacco laws were enforced with a stricter hand