SOMEHOW there are gaps in the picture. The WHO award to Pakistan for undertaking an effective campaign against tobacco has come as a pleasant surprise to many in a country where smoking is rampant. However, it is fair to ask in what manner the country has benefited from the anti-tobacco drive and to what extent has the consumption of the noxious substance been curtailed. As the Ministry of National Health Services receives its award on May 31, which is celebrated as World No Tobacco Day, it would do well to mull over the situation and not rest on its recent laurels. For instance, it has been estimated that tobacco consumers in the country number 30m and cost the exchequer Rs615bn in terms of the health burden — by no means a small amount for a country whose healthcare facilities are already overstretched. However, the government has been lauded for, among other steps, making Islamabad a ‘tobacco-smoke-free city’ by designating 304 localities and parks as smoke-free in 12 districts. Tobacco sellers have also been registered under this project, while the health ministry has prohibited all kinds of advertising, promotions and sponsorship of tobacco products on point of sale as well as on social media.

And yet the reality on the ground points in another, troubling direction. Access to smoking products is easy and the availability of the ostensibly banned single cigarettes is especially tempting for students and other young people. Meanwhile, anti-tobacco activists have rightly criticised the authorities for their lax tax policies towards the tobacco industry that help the latter earn huge profits. Indeed, there have been no increased taxes on tobacco products in the past four years whereas the price of other basic commodities has surged. In such a situation, how can the government’s goal of cutting the number of tobacco users by 30pc by 2025 be considered realistic? A rethink is needed on how to act on its intentions and enforce the measures that the government says will curb the use of tobacco.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2021

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