A spike in cigarette sales amid the pandemic deals a blow to anti-tobacco campaigns in the country
The Covid-19 pandemic has had an adverse effect on almost every aspect of our lives. It’s during this period that the economy of Pakistan contracted for the first time and there was immense loss of jobs and businesses. Though the government did not impose a complete lockdown and allowed some sectors of economy to function, albeit with certain procedures in place, the industrial output suffered a lot. The demand for certain goods and services plummeted leading to slowing down of economy. It was observed that the demand for food products increased because people resorted to panic buying for fear of stocks disappearing from the market. It then comes as a surprise that the production of cigarettes increased considerably in Punjab — and, hence, their sales — during this period.
According to a monthly survey of the Industrial Production and Employment in the Punjab, carried out by the province’s Planning and Development Department (P&D), the production of cigarettes increased by 9.4 percent and their sales by 19.2 percent in the Punjab, as the pandemic peaked. The same report which compares the figures of August 2020 with those of September 2020, states that the total employment in three major cigarette factories located in the Punjab also increased during this period.
These revelations come as a blow to the anti-tobacco campaigners as well as the provincial government departments that are pursuing the agenda of discouraging smoking and saving people from serious health conditions caused by smoking. It may be noted that the state has prior commitments made on international levels, on tobacco control. What message do findings like the increase in tobacco sales send out? One can only wonder.
The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) figures show a sustained growth in cigarette production over a long time. The bureau points out that the production reached 21.4 billion sticks between July-November 2020, with an increase of around 3.5 billion sticks over the same period last year.
The question that comes to one’s mind is whether this increased production and sale of cigarettes is linked directly to pandemic or are there other factors to be considered. Malik Imran, from Tobacco Free Kids (TFK), Pakistan, a non-profit organisation working on tobacco control, attributes the said increase to perennial issues plaguing the sector and not specifically the pandemic. He tells TNS that as there was no increase in tobacco tax, the cigarettes remained an affordable commodity and were actually consumed in larger quantities.
“Where everything else became expensive during the pandemic, the smokers had a field day because low taxes kept the prices down for them,” he says.
Imran adds that under the international obligations, Pakistan is supposed to raise taxes gradually on cigarettes but the industry somehow convinces the government not to do that. The tobacco industry even sponsors researches/studies that suggest that increasing taxes on cigarettes results in a corresponding rise in cases of smuggling and illicit trade, which is not the case.
When asked as to why it was in the Punjab that the cigarette industry is flourishing more than in other provinces, he says: “It’s because three of the biggest cigarette factories are located here. Period.”
Imran also talks of “propaganda” unleashed probably by the tobacco industry about smokers being at less risk of contracting Covid 19: “This may have added to the consumption figures in the report. Though, one can’t say this with conviction.”
The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) figures show a sustained growth in cigarette production over a long time. The bureau points out that the production reached 21.4 billion sticks between July and November 2020, with an increase of around 3.5 billion sticks over the same period last year.
Kashif Ali, a private sector employee, says his dependence on smoking increased during the pandemic because he believed it would help him overcome or reduce stress.
He also says that because he had greater free time while working from home and more disposable income thanks to the savings on travel costs, he was inclined to spend a lot more on cigarettes. “Socialisation and eating out had come to a naught, so I indulged in smoking more often.”
Sajjad Cheema, the executive director of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, does not concur with Ali. He is of the view that smoking “does not reduce stress; it’s just an addiction.”
He thinks that abundant free time, lack of healthy activities and easy availability of cigarettes could have tempted smokers to consume them more than ever.
He also stresses the fact that apart from imposing taxes on cigarettes and increasing their cost, the government should ensure that anti-tobacco laws are enforced. “Nobody should be allowed to sell cigarettes to people under the age of 18. No one should sell loose cigarettes and set up cigarette selling points within 50 metres of educational institutes. Unfortunately, the laws are there, but their enforcement leaves a lot to be desired.”
Dr Ziauddin Islam, Technical Head at the Tobacco Control Cell (TCC) in the Ministry of Health, says that it is a matter of concern that cigarette consumption is on the rise. He argues that the ministry regularly issues instructions but enforcement is the responsibility of the provinces and the federal capital.
Islam says that a large number of people are not even aware that laws against tobacco use exist: “If you tell someone to not smoke, they get angry and ask you to mind your own business.”
He adds that the ministry doesn’t allow prominent display of cigarettes at shops but this practice goes on unabated and advertising at points of sale can be seen.
“There’s no doubt that cigarette consumption has seen a boost during the pandemic, and the issue calls for immediate attention. We must not forget that smoking is an addiction and it is becoming rampant because of low taxes and poor enforcement. Increasing sales mean the existing smokers are smoking more, and there are a plenty of the first-timers.”
He concludes by saying that no doubt the cigarette companies pay taxes but the disease burden they create is far bigger. “As per a study, the cost of healthcare on diseases caused by smoking comes to Rs 192 billion per year.”
The author is a staff reporter and can be reached at [email protected]