ISLAMABAD: The fifth extension given by the Ministry of National Health Services to the tobacco industry to increase the size of pictorial health warning on cigarette packets has drawn a lot of flak from civil society and the health circles.
However, Minister for Health Saira Afzal Tarar said the move had been delayed as recommendations about the size of the warning could not be finalised.
On February 11, 2015, Ms Tarar announced that the size of the pictorial warning would be increased from the current 40 per cent to 85 per cent of the cigarette packets. But a campaign against the decision was launched by the tobacco industry and even a foreign diplomat was seen backing the move against the implementation of the decision. In March, Ms Tarar on the floor of the parliament vowed that she would not move an inch from her stance on the matter. The World Health Organisation (WHO) appreciated the minister’s ‘courageous’ stance.
But after making the announcement about increasing the size of the warning in February, the ministry of health continued setting deadlines and extending them.
On July 24, it was announced that instead of a sudden increase to 85 per cent, the size of the pictorial warning would be raised by 10 per cent annually. However, even that announcement could not be materialised. It was for the fourth time that the ministry delayed the implementation of its decision on September 30.
An official of the ministry requesting not to be identified said whenever the date to implement the decision arrived the tobacco industry became active.
“Last week, the tobacco industry again insisted that the increase in the pictorial warning will affect the revenue of the government and increase smuggling. Moreover, at a meeting held on July 24, it was decided that the 10 per cent increase in the pictorial warning would be made with the approval of the ministry of finance. But so far the ministry of finance has not given an approval in this regard,” he said.
On July 29, the civil society moved the Islamabad High Court seeking directions for ensuring the decision of the ministry of health to increase the size of the warning to 85 per cent. In the petition, the ministry of finance was also made a respondent. But when the court took up the matter on August 5, the finance ministry maintained that it had nothing to do with the pictorial warning on cigarette packets. “So on the next hearing of the petition on October 19, the court may order the ministry of health to implement the decision,” said the official.
He said India’s recent decision to increase the size of the pictorial warning to 85 per cent of the cigarette packets from April 1, 2016, had boosted the morale of the health ministry officials in Pakistan.
“We want to implement the decision to increase the pictorial warning to 85 per cent of the cigarette packets before India does to become the first country in the region. That is why in the SRO issued on September 30, we stated that the deadline to increase the size up to 85 per cent has been extended by one month,” he said.
In a statement issued on Thursday, The Network for Consumer Protection demanded the ministry ensure the increase of the pictorial warning size on the cigarette packets.
It said though no reason was assigned to the extension in the deadline, the minister’s recent interview suggested that she had been under tremendous pressure from the tobacco industry, its front groups and the western countries from where the tobacco multinationals come.
“In fact, in August this year one multinational gave bait to the Pakistan government of $100 million investment provided it does not go for the regulation,” said the statement.
Demanding the prime minister revamp the federal health ministry, the NGO said the current setup was vulnerable to the influence of non-health actors and unable to protect the people’s fundamental right to health and life.
The Network’s executive coordinator, Nadeem Iqbal, told Dawn that Pakistan spends much more on cigarette-related diseases than the revenue collected from the tobacco industry. When contacted, Health Minister Saira Afzal Tarar said she was serious about increasing the pictorial warning to 85 per cent.
“The SRO has been issued because recommendations about the increase in the pictorial warning could not be finalised. The decision will be implemented as soon as possible,” she added.
Published in Dawn, October 2nd, 2015