IN the world’s developed nations, cigarettes and tobacco-related products are being heavily regulated. There are warnings in large lettering on the packaging. ID rules require that the seller demand a nationally issued identity card and ensure that the person purchasing is at least 18 years old or in some cases 21 years old. Advertising for these products is also limited in various ways so that it cannot be directly targeted at young people particularly those under 18. The timing of commercials for these products is also limited. A high sales tax is imposed on tobacco or tobacco-related products so that their prices are often quite high.
In addition to these legally imposed restrictions, the dissemination of health information regarding these products has created social prejudice against those who use them. Cigarette smoking is banned in restaurants and for hundreds of metres outside buildings. Nobody wants to inhale noxious fumes and in turn nobody wants to be around smokers. Landlords refuse to lend to renters who are smokers and hotels charge more for smoking rooms and deploy deodorising fines if guests smoke in non-smoking rooms. In all of these ways, smoking is rendered ‘uncool’, the bad teeth and smoke reek are associated with being poor and ignorant.
Of course, hardly any of these safeguards exist in Pakistan, where people continue to inhale carcinogens and court lung cancer with abandon. Many still think smoking is cool, that it lends some air of mystery or seriousness or maturity to those who smoke. The maturity bit is particularly important. As research has shown, tobacco companies like to capture their customers early; the sooner a child starts smoking, the longer he will go on with the habit and continue to boost the profits of companies. While there are some regulations in Pakistan regarding cigarettes or tobacco products in general, including their advertisement, little has been done to actively discourage smoking, and young people eagerly poison themselves for decades to come. In recent years, it is not only cigarettes that can be peddled but also vaping-related products with their variously flavoured tobaccos (and deceptive claims of safety).
Nicotine pouches are the newest entrant in this game. Such is the greed and malice of unregulated tobacco companies (most are multinationals) that these nicotine pouches (which are banned in some countries) are purported to have actual ‘health benefits’.
Young people, advertisers know, will only be attracted to products that are seen as cool.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The contents of the pouches, which are being advertised as part of the publicity of a new star-studded music programme, are sugar-coated nicotine. Because they do not involve the visible lighting and smoking and smelling of cigarettes, these can be consumed anywhere and without the scrutiny of parents and other adults. Sometimes touted as products that help people quit cigarettes, they contain ingredients that are really a gateway drug designed to attract would-be tobacco consumers at increasingly younger ages. There may be a slightly lesser amount of nicotine in them but it is also addictive, and while there is less risk of lung cancer because there is no flammable component, there are concerns that their consumption could lead to other health conditions.
Young people, advertisers know, will only be attracted to products that are seen as cool. In past years, sugary sodas have been sold to the population using music shows and parading all the cool music stars on a screen bearing the sponsor’s logo. Now music produced and performed by Pakistan’s coolest, is going to be associated with what can only be described as an addictive substance.
With such advertising of nicotine-based products, is the goal to create associations that are positive and normalised to make the product that is being advertised a household name? It follows, then, that the poison will not be considered a poison if a parent finds it in a child’s pocket or a child is given this by an older cousin or friend. The addictive nature of the chemical will ensure that the consumer will want more and more and eventually graduate to other toxic products.
Of course, consumers are free to consume what they wish, and smoking or consuming nicotine pouches or vaping is not illegal in Pakistan. People are free to consume nicotine products despite knowing the health risks, just as they are able to scarf down cholesterol and fat-laden foods despite the threat of heart attacks. The issue with nicotine pouches is an aberration because there is no general awareness or warnings about the harmful effects of such toxic products and because many brands of pouches are being specifically targeted at our young people.
Individual conscience is also implicated here. The government must undoubtedly work harder to regulate these products and ensure that they are not advertised without clear and prominently displayed health warnings. Public figures like celebrities also have a role to play in discouraging their use; it is disturbing to see some of Pakistan’s best acting naïve when it comes to such products being peddled using their celebrity and renown. Music and entertainment are worthy pursuits, but not if they are an instrument for rendering nicotine cool and normal to the young audience at whom they are directed.
There is easy moral compartmentalisation through which celebrities pretend they have no responsibility towards those who want to watch them perform, with the audience being subjected to tantalising ads that make a bad thing sound very, very good. There are undoubtedly many poisons in Pakistan but that truth should not serve as a justification to permit the sale and dissemination of yet another one. We often mourn the global inequities which place little value on young Pakistani lives; now we must mourn how unthinkingly we do the same.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2020