Dr. Iftekhar Muhsin
The Smoking and Use of Tobacco Products (Control) Act (2013) stipulates that educational institutions must maintain a 100% smoke-free environment. However, shops surrounding secondary and even primary schools continue to stock a variety of tobacco products, including retail cigarettes. These products are often displayed alluringly with colorful wrappers, leading to two significant issues. Firstly, individuals are falling victim to the strategic advertising tactics employed by tobacco companies. Secondly, our children are at risk of inhaling second-hand smoke, potentially steering them towards becoming future smokers.
Various initiatives are being undertaken to combat this death-defying tobacco consumption, but the discussion surrounding the prohibition of retail cigarette sales struggles to gain momentum. To safeguard future generations from smoking, it is imperative to consider banning the sale of retail cigarettes. Achieving this will requirestrengthening existing tobacco control laws through collaborative, intensive efforts.
The current law designates several locations as “public places” where smoking is prohibited. These encompass educational institutions, government offices, private offices, libraries, hospitals, courts, airports, seaports, railway stations, bus terminals, theaters, exhibition centers, shopping malls, restaurants, public toilets, children’s parks, fairs, and designated queues for public transport passengers, among others.
The Honorable Prime Minister has pledged to make the country tobacco-free by 2040. Implementing this commitment requires not only banning the sale of retail cigarettes but also prohibiting the display of tobacco products at points of sale through legislative amendments. Other key measures include a complete ban on tobacco companies’ “social responsibility programs” or CSR activities, banning the import and sale of emerging tobacco products like e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products (HTPs), and increasing the size of pictorial health warnings to 90 percent.As of 2017, 35.3 percent of adults in Bangladesh were using some form of tobacco, while the rate among adolescents stood at 6.9 percent. It is essential to conduct research to ascertain whether these numbers have changed in the past five years. Apart from direct tobacco use, children are most vulnerable to the effects of secondhand smoke. A research report from Oxford revealed that 95 percent of children in Dhaka are exposed to secondhand smoke in some way, and more than 61,000 children in Bangladesh suffer from tobacco-related diseases each year.
Economically, a significant portion of our population leads a subsistence lifestyle, which makes single-stick purchases more appealing to smokers compared to buying a whole pack. For new smokers, acquiring a full pack is often challenging. With retail cigarettes readily available, many young individuals are on a route to becoming tomorrow’s smokers. The only viable solution to address this issue is through legal measures. Notably, 118 countries worldwide, including Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, have ceased selling single sticks, including retail cigarettes. This practice has also been banned in many regions of neighbouring India.
It’s crucial to recognize that tobacco companies are continually formulating strategies to attract new customers. Our focus should shift toward targeting potential new smokers rather than solely regulating existing ones. While tobacco advertising is legally prohibited, the attractive packaging of tobacco products within school premises serves as a form of indirect advertising that lures young students. Furthermore, it encourages new smokers. Aligning with the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) adopted by the World Health Organization, we should ensure that pictorial health warnings cover 90 percent of bidi-cigarette packets, rather than the current 50 percent in Bangladesh. Achieving this necessitates coordinated efforts with relevant stakeholders.
Although selling tobacco to children is punishable by law, enforcement remains minimal. To address this, raising awareness and providing counselling to sellers is crucial. Additionally, the establishment of a task force or monitoring committee can help regulate this issue effectively. Primarily, we need to strengthen the Tobacco Control Law.Tobacco companies exercise considerable power and cunning, making our movement against them a matter of national and societal importance. We aspire to nurture a healthy and happy generation and prevent further casualties resulting from harmful products like tobacco.
Author: Dr. Iftekhar Muhsin
Public Health Specialist
Programme Coordinator-Shastho Shurokkha Foundation