ISLAMABAD: Civil society activists on Thursday urged the government to implement the decision it made four years ago to increase the size of the graphic health warning on cigarette packs to 85pc.
The activists were speaking at a press conference at the National Press Club organised by the Human Development Foundation (HDF), Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc), Pakistan National Heart Association (Panah) and Incision Films.
In January 2015, the government had issued a statutory regulatory order (SRO) under increasing the size of the pictorial health warning on cigarette packets from 45pc to 85pc and replacing the image on the packs within the next five months.
The decision was announced at the press conference by then minister for national health services (NHS) Saira Afzal Tarar, who was even awarded for it by the World Health Organisation, but it has never been implemented.
Civil society activists approached the Islamabad High Court (IHC) against the failure to implement the decision and a single bench comprising Justice Aamer Farooq issued a short order a few days ago stating that the government should decide whether to implement or rescind the notification within two weeks.
Recent IHC hearing showed that govt has repeatedly been under influence of tobacco industry, activist alleges
According to existing laws, the graphic health warning on cigarette packs must be 60pc of the size of pack. The increase in size was announced in an SRO in 2017 that replaced the 2015 notification increasing the size to 85pc.
Health advocates have argued that the size of the warning in Pakistan is smaller than other countries in the region. In Nepal, the pictorial health warning is 90pc of the pack, in India it is 85pc and in Sri Lanka it is 80pc.
HDF CEO Azhar Saleem said graphic health warnings on cigarette packs are a proven and cost-effective measure to create mass awareness and reduce tobacco consumption. He said the significance of these health warnings have been proven through various research studies that show a reduction in consumption rate and intent to quit smoking.
Under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) guidelines, signatories are required to enhance graphic health warnings on cigarette pack with clear textual warnings as well.
“FCTC also requires the signatories to not be influenced by the tobacco industry when formulating laws and policies of public health interest. However, this has not been the case here as government bodies are easily influenced by tobacco industry,” Mr Saleem said.
The country representative of Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids Malik Imran said the tobacco industry was actively strategising how to counter tobacco control measures and influences government departments that work on tobacco control.
He said other countries in Asia were working effortlessly to enhance the graphic health warnings on cigarette packs while Pakistan was still under the influence of the tobacco industry.
“During the court hearing ministry of health even admitted to being susceptible to the pressures from the tobacco industry lobby groups. The admission of ministry of health to succumbing to the influence of tobacco industry is a clear picture of how easily the tobacco industry lobby can influence law making and implementing bodies in Pakistan,” he said.
He said that the recent case hearing in the IHC also showed that the government has repeatedly been under the influence of the tobacco industry, leading public health advocates and the anti-tobacco lobby to worry this will happen again if concrete measures are not taken.
Panah General Secretary Sanaullah Ghumman said it was necessary to raise awareness among the public about the health hazards of tobacco consumption, which causes cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases and various kinds of cancer.
Sparc Executive Director Sajjad Cheema said tobacco consumption begins at an early age, mostly among children.
“Along with strict control measures that ban the sale of cigarettes to minors, we need to focus on advocating for enhanced graphic health warnings on cigarette packs.
“Through these graphic health warnings we can sensitise masses on the health hazards of firsthand and secondhand smoking,” he said.
According to a survey by the Ministry of NHS, tobacco kills 160,189 people in Pakistan every year. Almost 15.6 million adults currently smoke tobacco in the country, and around 1,200 Pakistani children between the ages of six and 15 start smoking every day.
The economic cost of smoking amounts to Rs143.2 billion. This includes direct costs related to healthcare expenditure and indirect costs related to lost productivity due to early mortality and morbidity.
Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2019