ISLAMABAD: Top government functionaries are divided on how to enlarge pictorial health warnings on cigarette packets.

The Prime Minister’s Office has directed the Ministry of National Health Services (NHS) to stop implementing its decision of increasing the pictorial health warnings from 40pc to 85pc and instead apply the recommendations of an inter-ministerial committee which had suggested increasing the warning by 10pc in the first year. The Prime Minister’s Office apparently took the decision after meetings with representatives of Philip Morris International (PMI). The NHS minister has opposed the recent decision from the Prime Minister’s Office and for taking the wrong side of the global effort to discourage tobacco use.

In Jan 2015, the government had announced that the size of pictorial health warnings on cigarette packets will be increased from 45pc to 85pc and the picture will also be replaced but the decision has yet to be implemented and even though the NHS had made the announcement, it was decided that an inter-ministerial committee will be formed to look into the issue due to pressure from the tobacco industry.

The committee decided that in the first year, the pictorial warning will be increased by 10pc so it takes up half the packet and that in the next year, it will be decided after conducting surveys if it should be further increased by 5pc or 10pc.

However, members of the civil society went to the Islamabad High Court against the recommendation and its implementation was stopped as the matter was declared sub judice even though the IHC has not issued a stay order.

Every month, the NHS would extend the date for implement the changing of the picture by a month and has stopped doing so since September this year. The ministry has not extended the date for implementing the decision regarding the increasing of the picture to 85pc and even though the decision was not implemented, the law division in its opinion said it was and some cases were also registered against tobacco sellers.

On Oct 2, PMI Vice President US and International Corporate Affairs Jon E. Huenemann wrote a letter to Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, which is available with Dawn and in which he has appreciated the meeting with his organisation’s representative with the premier during the US-Pakistan Business Council event in New York on Sept 20, 2017.

He has appreciated the performance of the Federal Board of Revenue and the premier has been requested to implement the recommendations of the inter-ministerial committee regarding the pictorial warnings in order to avoid further complications.

Talking to Dawn, Director South Asia for Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Vandana Shah said that in Pakistan and around the world, tobacco companies like PMI do everything they can to fight the policies they know can reduce tobacco use.

“The latest attempt from PMI to influence Pakistan’s decision to implement large, life saving warning labels on tobacco products is part of a global strategy used by tobacco giants concerned only with selling more cigarettes, especially in low and middle income countries,” she said and explained that PMI does not want the pictorial warning to be increased to 85pc at once and therefore considers it better that the picture takes up half the pack.

“Pakistan is party to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), an international public health treaty that obligates countries to pass policies proven to curb tobacco use. As required by the treaty, Pakistan has made a commitment to take action to reduce the enormous burden of tobacco-related death and disease, a committee more important than the self-serving interests of big tobacco companies,” Ms Shah said.

Talking to Dawn, Minister NHS, Saira Afzal Tarar said the Prime Minister’s Office has sent a directive to the ministry to implement the recommendations of the committee, which calls for a 10pc increase.

“Our stance is very clear, which is that the pictorial health warning should be increased from 40 to 85pc. Other countries have implemented the recommendations of FCTC and we cannot go against the world. The matter has been included in the agenda for the federal cabinet meeting scheduled for [Thursday] and we will call for increasing the warning up to 85pc without delay,” she said.

She said the ministry will give the tobacco industry four months to print cigarette packets with an 85pc warning and selling the existing stock in the market.

Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2017