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Call for tough anti-tobacco campaign to create mass awareness
Anti-tobacco campaigners at a discussion meeting here on Saturday stressed the need for launching a vigorous campaign against tobacco in the country to create awareness among people about its adverse impact on human health.
It is urgent to make people aware of the consequences of tobacco use aiming to protect their health, and both the government and local communities should play a stronger role in this regard, they said.
Amra Dhumpan Nibaron Kori (Adhunik, Bengali acronym for ‘We Prevent Smoking), WHO award winning, first national anti-tobacco organisation in Bangladesh, and WHO jointly arranged the discussions at the National Press Club, on the eve of the World No Tobacco Day, 31 May, 2016.
Presided over by Adhunik president and UNB chairman Amanullah Khan, the meeting was addressed by president of Dhaka University Teachers’ Association (Duta) Dr Farid Uddin Ahmed as the chief guest and additional secretary of Health Ministry Basudeb Ganguly as special guest. Among others, Prof M Jalal Uddin of LabAid Hospital, joint secretary of the Health Ministry Enamul Haque Eman, Adhunik executive secretary MA Jabbar and social welfare secretary Nina Islam and president of Coalition against Tobacco-Drug and Terrorism Ali Niamat spoke at the discussion.
Prof Farid Uddin Ahmed in his speech said mass awareness on the adverse effects of tobacco use is a pre-condition to help people to keep themselves out of harms way of tobacco.
He suggested broadcasting anti-tobacco advertisements in radio and television channels regularly in addition to having a policy in place not to hire smokers for public and private services.
Basudeb Ganguly told about one lakh people die due to tobacco-related diseases in the country each year while several lakhs suffer from its deadly consequences.
He said there are about 4.13 crore smokers in the country, and 63 percent of its population gets afflicted with passive smoking.
The non-communicable diseases like cancer, diabetes and hypertension are on the rise in the country as a result of tobacco inhalation, Basudeb said adding that a massive motivational programme needs to be unveiled to help people quit smoking tobacco.
Amanullah Khan in his address pointed out that smoking is not only the gateway to more lethal drug addiction leading to compulsive drug abuse, but it is in itself an addictive drug as identified by WHO way back in mid eighties. He was dismayed hat the government is yet to classify it as addictive that stands in the way of effectively preventing and reducing its spread. “There is also no safe level of smoking unlike other drugs or unhealthy diets. Tobacco’s damaging effect on human health has been well documented and scientifically vindicated and it has proved to be a leading cause of death and intractable diseases worldwide,” he mentioned.
“About 80 percent of the country’s population lives in rural areas where the use of chewable/smokeless tobacco products like jarda. sada pata and gul are pervasive thus exposing themselves to grave health hazards as it is considered more harmful than smoking tobacco,” he added.
Noting that the smokeless tobacco is yet to be incorporated into the formal sector of the economy, the Adhunik chairman urged the government to take necessary steps to make it a part of the formal sector in order to bring it under the tax regime. “This move will not only help raise tax revenue but also discourage people from using it,” he said.
Khan in his deliberation mentioned that a number of countries especially in the developed world have already introduced plain packaging of tobacco products, but the developing world in particular Bangladesh still lags far behind as it is not yet ready to do so.
Quoting a government official Khan said the existing tobacco control law 2013 was passed after incorporating necessary amendments to the original Act adopted in 2005 after a lapse of some eight years with a similar delay likely to occur for another amendment. The anti-tobacco leader felt that it might be feasible to achieve plain packaging through issuing a government handout (SRO) pending the new legislation. In this connection, he stressed the need for vesting more power and authority to NTCC (National Tobacco Control Cell) to enable it to function more effectively to fulfill its objectives, if necessary by enacting a new law.
“Cigarette prices in Bangladesh are among the cheapest in the world due to low tax rate and production cost compared to other countries that has obviously resulted in attracting more people to the deadly habit,” he lamented suggesting that the government should raise tax on tobacco steeply by at least 300% which would act as a double edged sword by deterring smoking while at the same time boosting government revenue. He also urged for the tax structure applicable to tobacco products to be rationalized.
Quoting a reliable source, Khan said during the fiscal year 2015-16 (upto February) government earned revenue from cigarettes and ‘biris’ amounting to Tk.10,127 crore and 249 crore respectively that represented revenue growths of 8.77% and 10.52% respectively over the same period in the previous year 2014-15. He highlighted the fact that 30% of the government’s total revenue comes from the tobacco sector which testifies to the stark realities that the government still remains overdependent on tobacco companies for a major part of its overall revenue. He asserted the national health bill to treat tobacco related diseases far outweighs the revenue from tobacco. The anti-tobacco leader called upon the government to shed dependence on tobacco for its revenue and switch to non-tobacco product lines in its bid to get rid of the tobacco menace by 2040 as declared by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. He, however, apprehended the government might miss the target unless bold and radical actions were taken to attack the heart of the issue which are cutting off on the supply side, i.e. replacing tobacco cultivation with food grains and harmless cash crops accompanied by dismantling the tobacco empire, i.e. de-licensing and winding up the tobacco companies that feed the demand side with public motivation over a specific time frame.
The anti-tobacco campaigner recalled that Adhunik led by its founder National Professor Dr. Nurul Islam was instrumental in persuading the government to declare smoke free the vital locations like Bangabhaban, Ganobhaban, Secretariat (the seat of the government) and Bangladesh Biman Airline planes. “We followed up by demanding that the ban should be extended to include Bangladesh Parliament, symbol of the national sovereignty with the seat of the legislative power and also the industrial establishments where the bulk of our labour force work, demands which are yet to be met. The ban sets a shining example for ordinary citizens of the country to emulate by refraining from smoking. This positive process should be continued by bringing more areas and places under tobacco free zone by stages until a total ban comes into effect,” Khan emphasized. “Above all, the government should demonstrate the political will and commitment to confront and tackle a hugely challenging health crisis posed by tobacco scourge,” he concluded.
Earlier in the morning Adhunik held an anti-tobacco rally in front of the National Press Club entrance led by its president Amanullah Khan carrying banner and shouting slogans in favour of their movement and denouncing the tobacco giants as manufacturers of poisons and toxins. The rally was joined among others by Dr. Kamal Hossain, an internationally renowned jurist and founder of Gono Forum. Addressing the gathering he expressed his solidarity with Adhunik crusade to eradicate tobacco addiction with a view to promoting public health. He also lauded Adhunik members for turning out in large numbers braving the inclement weather that showed their determination to stage the rally and devotion to their noble cause.