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Up in smoke Public health and tobacco

May 28, 2013

THE figures are shocking enough in themselves: since the revenue department established the Anti-Illicit Tobacco/Cigarettes Trade in Pakistan cell in February last year, around 50 million sticks of smuggled foreign or locally manufactured but untaxed cigarettes have been confiscated. With the market across the country flooded with such tobacco products that have paid no tax — the money going into the pockets of shopkeepers and dealers — the illicit trade steals around Rs10bn annually from the country’s earnings. Entering the country through several routes including the porous border with Afghanistan at Chaman and Torkham, each truck that carries an untaxed cigarette consignment causes a loss of some Rs3.5m to the exchequer.

Yet much more crucial than the monetary angle is the health risk that this irresponsible practice poses. Most such smuggled cigarette packets do not carry the health advisories that Pakistani law mandates, such as pictorial warnings, messages in Urdu, the limitation on sale to underage children and the price. This means that this industry of death in effect neutralises efforts the country has made to deter citizens from smoking, including legislation such as the bar on smoking in public spaces and the campaign to highlight the risks of this evil practice. The same argument can be used for this industry as that used in the fight against drugs: given the very serious issue of public health that is at stake, while the authorities must continue to do what they can to curb the smuggling and catch the offenders, those peddling the products must also be brought to book. Such cigarette packets are widely available across the country, at upmarket hotels and roadside stalls alike; the owners of these concerns, too, should be held responsible for endangering people’s health.