ONE hundred thousand dead. That’s the number of tobacco-related deaths that occur in Pakistan every year. The campaign announced in the media during the past several days that Islamabad is to be a tobacco-free zone from Jan 1, 2013, is therefore a step in the right direction, and long overdue. For years after the iconic Marlboro man fell from grace in the West, he continued to gallop his way across many an advertisement and into the hearts (and lungs) of millions of people in the developing world, with dire consequences.
In Pakistan, smoking was banned at all public places in 2002, including offices, hotels, hospitals, educational institutions, airports and shopping centres. However, implementation has been lax. The ban on smoking inside public transport vehicles is also flouted with impunity, as is the requirement that cigarette packets display a pictorial health warning. A study conducted in Karachi found most of the outlets in the survey even sold cigarettes to minors. Assuming that is the template for the rest of the country, it’s little wonder that an estimated 1,200 Pakistani youngsters take up smoking every day. In short, the health burden of tobacco-related illness, which includes soaring rates of lung and oral cancers, the latter thanks to widespread consumption of chewing tobacco, is one that Pakistan with its myriad problems can scarcely afford. The media campaign by the government’s tobacco control cell promises that the law will henceforth be “strictly enforced”. The law stipulates that violators can be fined up to Rs100,000 and jailed for up to three months. With Islamabad hopefully the starting point of a countrywide campaign, it would be fitting if government functionaries, especially those with a public profile, set an example by not smoking in public. If that can be done and the ban strictly enforced, one would have to say, “You’ve come a long way, baby”.