DESPITE successive governments’ efforts, tobacco use continues to remain a significant public health challenge for Pakistani authorities. Responsible for several fatal diseases — such as cancer, cardiovascular illnesses, diabetes and various lung diseases — tobacco use is an entirely avoidable cause of death. Yet, for indefensible reasons, our authorities have preferred a light touch when it comes to the implementation of measures designed to cut the prevalence of tobacco use and discourage more citizens from taking it up. Regulation of the tobacco industry remains extremely lax — even tobacco-manufacturing companies decry how freely a black market for tobacco products thrives in Pakistan. The sale of tobacco products continues without being subjected to any responsible supervision, allowing even children to access cigarettes from their neighbourhood paan kiosk. Recent years have seen an increase in taxes on tobacco products, especially cigarettes, but is that really enough to discourage a particularly vulnerable population from taking up a bad and potentially deadly habit? Health officials worry it’s not enough.
Earlier this year, speakers at a conference in Islamabad highlighted that the number of smokers had reached 31m in the country and that an alarming 466 citizens were dying daily due to tobacco-induced diseases. The most disquieting finding shared at the conference was that around 1,200 children between the ages of six and 15 years are taking up smoking every day across the country. Each year, the deadly habit lops off about 1.6pc of the national GDP, or more than Rs600bn, according to the country head of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Malik Imran Ahmed. Tobacco taxes account for only 20pc of that number, according to Mr Ahmed. The proliferation of new tobacco-derived products is also giving Pakistan’s public health experts cause for serious concern. Nicotine pouches, for example, can quickly get non-smokers addicted to their use, opening a doorway to other tobacco products. The question is, are the authorities paying any attention?
Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2023