ISLAMABAD: Anti-tobacco activists have urged Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani to look into the institution of cigarettes bearing the logo of the Senate and the government of Pakistan on their packaging.

They said it was a violation of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to gift cigarettes.

Despite government efforts to discourage smoking, including banning tobacco advertisements, cigarettes were distributed among parliamentarians last week bearing the title of the Senate and the government’s logo on the packaging. The packaging also lacked warnings about the danger smoking poses to health.

Pakistan National Heart Association (Panah) Secretary General Chaudhry Sanaullah Ghuman said it was unfortunate that a violation of the law was observed in Parliament House.

“We urge the Senate chairman to look into the issue and take strict action against those who distributed cigarette packs in Parliament House,” he said.

Malik Imran, a representative of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said anti-tobacco activists were shocked to hear that cigarettes were gifted to parliamentarians.

He said nearly 1,200 teenagers start smoking in Pakistan every day, and such incidents will further increase smoking among the youth.

Also on Monday, the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc) held an event titled ‘Raising Taxes on Tobacco Products for Revenue Generation’ at the National Press Club.

Sparc Executive Director Sajjad Ahmed said that Pakistan has not made much progress on its commitment to providing free and quality education to every child under Article 25-A of the Constitution.

He said Pakistan has around 87.9 million children, approximately 47pc of the population. An estimated 22.8m children between the ages of five and 16-44pc of the overall population of children - are out of school, one of the highest numbers of out-of-school children in the world.

Mr Ahmed said that allocating salaries for teachers does not equate to working on education, adding that an adequate budget should be allocated to convert primary schools to middle and secondary schools in order to reduce the drop-out rate.

Human Development Foundation CEO Azhar Saleem said that the large fiscal imbalances in Pakistan require greater tax revenues. Tobacco taxation can contribute to government revenues, he said, and these taxes will also help promote child education objectives.

He added that the tobacco surcharge alone can generate Rs50 billion in revenue. A surcharge would help reduce tobacco consumption and can also be redirected towards education.

Economist Waseem Saleem said that the level of under-reporting of cigarette production in Pakistan has significant negative implications on government tax revenue.

Sparc Research and Communication Manager Khalil Ahmed said that the volume of illicit trade is very low compared to the claims made by the tobacco industry. He added that the annual economic cost of smoking in Pakistan is as high as Rs143bn.

Mr Ghuman from Panah said the tobacco industry caused a loss of Rs153bn to the national exchequer between 2016 to 2019 by being awarded a low tax rate and adjusting the prices of their most popular brands.

Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2020