MOST readers know about the hazards of cigarette smoking, which is linked to a host of illnesses, including acute myeloid leukaemia, lung cancer, throat cancer, oral cavity and heart disease. But despite increasing awareness, the sale and production of tobacco products have risen in large parts of the world. According to the World Health Organisation, tobacco kills more than 8m people each year, including 1.2m non-smokers who are unfortunately exposed to second-hand smoke. Even more worryingly, WHO estimates that over 80pc of all smokers reside in low- and middle-income countries, which already suffer from overburdened healthcare systems. In Pakistan, the use of cigarettes, gutka and sheesha are still largely culturally acceptable habits and fairly inexpensive and easy to acquire. To counter this damaging trend, the Ministry of National Health Services has now imposed a ban on the display of cigarettes at sale points, hoping it will lead to a reduction in the number of smokers in the country. There is reason to believe that such policies work, but only if they are implemented on the ground through sustained efforts by lawmakers and the law-enforcement authorities. Otherwise, policy on paper alone cannot lead to change. For instance, despite a ban on the sale of loose cigarettes, shopkeepers continue the practice, without fear of facing repercussions.
Pakistan is signatory to the Convention on Tobacco Control, which calls on governments to impose taxes on tobacco products, increase awareness on the harms of cigarette smoking, and restrict indoor venues for public smoking. It also calls for “a limitation in the interactions between lawmakers and the tobacco industry” to prevent lobbying by Big Tobacco companies, which happen to be major taxpayers in the country. Last year, however, the prime minister was photographed receiving a cheque from the representative of an international tobacco company to construct dams in the country — in spite of his own record of building free-of-charge cancer facilities. Change must begin at the top.
Published in Dawn, March 5th, 2020