KARACHI: An estimated 1,000 to 1,200 schoolchildren between six and 16 years of age are taking up smoking every day in Pakistan, where 160,000 people die every year due to tobacco-related diseases.
Successive governments made a compromise on public health as they didn’t impose high taxes on the tobacco industry — a strategy which has brought significant reduction in smoking in other countries.
These points were shared on Monday at a media orientation session on the impact of tobacco smoking on children organised by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc), Karachi, at a local hotel.
Highlighting how successive governments ignored the gravity of growing tobacco use, Sadia Shakeel of Sparc said that big tobacco industry caused a whopping Rs153 billion loss to the national exchequer between 2016 and 2019 by being awarded low tax rate and through price adjustments of their most sold brands.
“Almost 90 per cent of all brands consumed in Pakistan were taxed as “low” tiers under the previous tax system (FY 2016-17). Big tobacco companies share 75pc of the total market, which means they were able to sell 120 billion cigarettes in the same period,” she said.
Sharing the WHO statistics, Dr Farah Iqbal, a senior professor and chairperson of the Karachi University’s psychology department, said that tobacco was the only legal drug that killed many of its users.
“The WHO estimates that tobacco use (smoking and smokeless) is currently responsible for the death of about six million people across the world each year with many of these deaths occurring prematurely. This total includes about 600,000 people who die from the effects of second-hand smoke,” she said.
Smoking caused, she pointed out, more deaths each year than alcohol misuse, HIV, illegal drug use, motor vehicle injuries and homicides combined.
Highlighting how tobacco damages health, Prof Iqbal said that there was more to cigarettes than just nicotine as they contained over 4,000 chemicals, over 50 of which were known to be toxic in nature.
“As adolescent brains are still developing, nicotine exposure during youth and young adulthood can change the way the brain works, leading to a lifetime of addiction and may cause long-lasting effects such as increased impulsivity and mood disorders,” she said, adding that smoking was associated with a host of other risky behaviours and most doctors agreed that smoking should be classified as a medical condition.
Smoking becoming popular
On Pakistan, she referred to 2013 WHO data and said that 19pc of adults aged 18 and above smoked tobacco and among youth of age between 13 and 15 years, around 34pc reported being exposed to second-hand smoke in public places and 27pc report exposure at home.
“Smoking is becoming popular among schoolchildren and it is estimated that smoking in Pakistan has increased by 30pc over the last decade.
“The Pakistan Paediatrics Association has estimated that 1,000 to 1,200 schoolgoing children in the age group of six to 16 years take up smoking every day in the country,” she said.
Zahid Thebo of Sparc focused on the role of anti-smoking campaigns in educational institutions and said that the organisation had been working to push the government to increase taxes on tobacco products.
“Reduced smoking results in better health and reduced cost on health budget,” he said, regretting lack of implementation of anti-smoking laws.
Earlier, Kashif Mirza of Sparc presented an introduction on the session and defined the role of media with respect to social issues.
Presenting some data on passive smoking, he said that 70pc people in Pakistan had to experience second-hand smoking at indoor workplace, which was equally damaging.
He also spoke about the use of shisha and said that it’s a misconception that it’s a safe alternative to cigarettes.
He cited some statistics according to which the smoke from a shisha or water-pipe contained numerous toxicants that caused numerous diseases including cancer.
The session attended by several journalists ended with a vote of thanks by Sparc manager Shomaila Waheed.
Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2019