WHEN Sheema Kermani launched her play Zehreela Dhooan, she probably didn’t realise how formidable would be her battle against the cigarette. In this play a cast of eight earnest people take on the mighty tobacco giants. That is what it amounts to when one tries to persuade smokers to quit smoking, as the play attempts to do.
A powerful presentation — patterned on street theatre with penetrating dialogues rather than elaborate stage props — Zehreela Dhooan does not allow the spectators to go home without provoking some serious thoughts.
True, we are all well-informed about the dangers of smoking — the warning on cigarette packs are a constant reminder of the hazards for smokers. But the play goes beyond that. It stirs one’s emotions. Who will not share the grief of the mother mourning her deceased daughter who fell victim to tobacco? That is what all of Sheema’s presentations set out to do to make a powerful impact on the audience when it identifies itself with the characters in the play and internalises its message.
That is how Tehrik-i-Niswan, the group she founded in 1979, has brought many feminist issues to the fore and empowered women. Sheema has effectively used the medium of theatre and dance to change the popular perspective on sensitive questions such as violence against women, gender discrimination and the low status of women. Thus for the first time the performing the arts began to be used as a catalyst for social reform.
Has this strategy made an impact? Sheema takes a positive view. She says she did three performances for the All Pakistan Women’s Association’s anti-smoking drive and later she met women who told her they were so impressed with the play that they’d quit tobacco altogether.
When you see the wider picture, these small success stories are like a drop in the ocean. In the case of tobacco, it has proved to be an uphill task to persuade people to relinquish the pleasures of smoking. The consumption of cigarettes has been shooting up worldwide, though now the nexus between cigarettes and cancer has been quite convincingly established.
In Pakistan, health campaigners have to contend additionally with betel nuts and sheesha that have made the situation even more dismal.
In 2011, according to the State Bank of Pakistan’s report, 65.4 billion cigarettes were produced in the country and approximately Rs195bn went up in smoke. This does not take account of the low-grade, unbranded cigarettes produced in unregistered factories all over the country.
Smoking is a worldwide scourge. Mankind discovered its hedonistic pleasures before medical science learnt about its risks to human health. There is, however, a difference in how the advanced countries and Third World states address the problem. In the West, smoking is seen as an individual’s personal choice. But as the rights of non-smokers have to be respected, strict laws have been introduced to ban smoking in public places. In Third World countries the laws, even if adopted, tend to be lax.
That is what we see in Pakistan today. We are quick to adopt laws without really seeing to their implementation.
The country has a variety of laws supposedly designed to check the use of tobacco. The Cigarettes (Printing of Warning) Ordinance, 1979 (later revised several times) makes it mandatory to print pictorial warnings on the packs.
The Prohibition of Smoking in Enclosed Places and Protection of Non-smokers Health Ordinance, 2002 prohibits the use of tobacco in any place of public work or use and in public service vehicles and prohibits advertisement of tobacco products, sale to minors and sale or distribution of cigarettes near educational institutions. A large number of rules elaborate these laws.
And yet the charm of tobacco defies all restrictions. A survey by some doctors of the Dow Medical University in Karachi found blatant violation of these laws with smokers lighting up cigarettes freely in banks and other offices of public dealings, shopkeepers selling cigarettes to children under 18 and the ban on cigarettes not being observed in buses.
The fact is that the tobacco industry enjoys a paradoxically privileged position in the economy. On the one hand it is taxed heavily as it has no one to publicly champion its cause. But on the other hand, given the huge turnover of the tobacco industry, cigarettes have emerged as a major source of revenue for the treasury.
Hence one suspects that officially there is no serious interest in implementing the laws. Would any government want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?
Take Pakistan Tobacco Limited, Pakistan’s largest tobacco company. In its financial statement for the January-September 2011 period it says that the company contributed to the national exchequer federal excise duty, sales tax, custom duty and income tax worth Rs37.6bn (for nine months). The country’s public sector spending on health for 2010-11 was Rs42bn.
With economics working in the direction of a smoking culture one wonders if Sheema’s brave efforts will succeed. Nevertheless I consider her approach very important.
Any change in human behaviour has to begin with a change in perception. The Tehrik-i-Niswan attempts to make a beginning by changing mindsets. Its next presentation on Feb 14 based on Fehmida Riaz’s poem is a dance-drama Aao Raqs Karo (come let us dance) which addresses the issue of violence against women. If we go by experience, this may be an even bigger challenge.