KARACHI: Tobacco use has emerged as a serious health challenge in Pakistan that now stands among the top four countries of the world with rapid increase in tobacco market.
This was stated by experts at a seminar held on Tuesday at a local hotel. The event was organised by the National Alliance for Tobacco Control (NATC) in collaboration with the Aga Khan University (AKU) and the Pakistan Chest Society.
According to these experts, tobacco kills nearly six million people each year in the world, of which more than 600,000 are non-smokers dying from passive smoking. In Pakistan, they say, an estimated 40 per cent males and nine per cent females are smokers and the number is increasing day by day.
“The Asia Pacific region represents the fastest growing tobacco market in the world with Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Vietnam being the top four countries reporting rapid increase in tobacco use,” chairman of the NATC and AKU consultant chest physician Prof Javaid A. Khan said.
He asked the government not to come under pressure being exerted by tobacco companies these days to withdraw the decision of increasing the size of pictorial health warning on cigarette packs.
“The government must implement its decision since a pictorial health warning on a cigarette box is a proven strategy to prevent younger people from taking up this powerful addiction that is estimated to kill over 100,000 people every year in the country,” he said.
Citing some reports, he said that the country spent Rs5 billion every year on betel nuts imports while Pakistanis wasted Rs200bn on smoking in 2011, according to a State of Bank of Pakistan report.
The speakers regretted the participation of a diplomat in a lobbying meeting (held in March) where the British American Tobacco (BAT) officials intended to persuade the government of Pakistan to reverse the decision that would mandate large graphic health warning on cigarette packs.
“This is a breach of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to which the UK is a signatory,” said Dr Ali Bin Sarwar Zubairi, another AKU expert.
It is important to mention here that the UK parliament has passed legislation this year to introduce standardised packaging for tobacco products to reduce their appeal, particularly among children.
Tracing the history of tobacco companies in Pakistan, Dr Zubairi said that the Pakistan Tobacco Company was established by BAT in 1947 as Pakistan was viewed as an emerging market with large growth potential.
Illicit tobacco trade in Pakistan, he said, was 20pc of the total cigarette market and main source of smuggling was the Afghan transit trade. The fact that these illicit products were untaxed, unregulated, carried no health warnings and priced cheaper made them more popular in developing countries like Pakistan.
“The Pakistani government addicted to the tobacco revenue needs to understand that the revenue of Rs75bn it generates from the tobacco industry every year is far less than over Rs100bn that the public spend on treating diseases caused by smoking,” he said.
Citing the Federal Board of Revenue statistics, he said that though the country suffered an annual loss of Rs7.4bn due to illicit tobacco trade, prospects of the government controlling the illicit trade appeared bleak.
Highlighting the influence of tobacco industry that, according to Dr Zubairi, was also involved in hidden promotional activities, he said that the ban on tobacco advertising and promotion was not comprehensive in the country and there was a dire need to completely prohibit tobacco advertisement and promotion.
“Smoking is banned in indoor offices, restaurants, health-care and educational facilities and on public transportation in Pakistan. But, one can see that there is hardly any implementation of the ban,” he observed.
Consultant chest physician at the AKUH Dr Talha Shahzad said that approximately 50 per cent of smokers died prematurely, on an average 14 years earlier than non-smokers. Quitting smoking was arguably the most important preventable risk factor for cardiovascular disease, he said while referring to the American Heart Association data.
Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2015