ISLAMABAD: Lack of government resolve in curbing smuggling and late implementation of pictorial warnings have been the main hurdles in discouraging the trend of smoking in Pakistan. Tobacco claims 274 Pakistani lives every day, according to the Ministry of Health.
Embossing pictorial warnings on packets of cigarettes is a standard practise in the west to discourage smoking. The Ministry of Health is finally planning to introduce these warnings during a ceremony in Islamabad Club on Monday, but not after dragging its feet on it for a considerable while and postponing it more than once in the past.
Talking to The Express Tribune, General Secretary of Cigarette Manufacturers Association Talal Hakeem said, “The government is not sincere in implementing the pictorial health warnings in Pakistan. I don’t see it happening even this year.”
Hectic lobbying by the tobacco industry ensured that implementation gets delayed. Director General Tobacco Control Cell (TCC) Yousuf Khan said, “The industry is not cooperating with the government on this initiative. They will try to delay this even further.”
A civil society representative Khurram Hashmi, who also works for the Coalition for Tobacco Control (CTC-Pakistan) corroborated the claims and said that previous delays in the implementations of the pictorial warnings were due to a deal between the Ministry of Health and the tobacco industry.
Furthermore, smuggled cigarettes continue to thrive in the country. General Secretary CMA Talal Hakeem said the Ministry of Health had failed to control the sale of one billion smuggled cigarettes in Pakistan. “These are readily available to people at cheaper prices,” he said.
“The customs officials are responsible for clearance at the ports of entry and borders, including Pak-Afghan and Pak-Iran borders. Inability to control the influx of smuggled stock results in an annual loss of around Rs1.5 billion,” he added.
Pictorial warnings and smuggling are two issues that are often interlinked by some officials, who deem warnings futile if smuggled stock continues to make it to the local markets.
Yousuf Khan said, “Smuggling is the main hurdle in implementation of health warnings in letter and spirit.”
In a letter written by CMA to Latif Ullah Virk Director General of Customs Intelligence at the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) it was stated, “With the introduction of pictorial health warnings…CMA foresees that smuggling into Pakistan of packs without the mandated pictorial warnings will increase.”
Discussing the steps taken by the government and subsequent outcomes Yousuf said, “TCC succeeded to bring down smoking ratio from 30 per cent to 25 per cent. Smoking was also banned from public places and warnings were pasted in the smoking corners of different public areas which stated ‘tobacco kills 274 Pakistanis everyday.”
Secretary Health Khushnood Lashari also said that he would focus on enforcement of laws to bring tobacco companies into the tax net, which were earlier accused of not paying taxes. “High price of cigarettes is the only way to stop this habit among people,” he said.
“We are going to hold a meeting with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani with representatives of WHO to implement the laws ‘regarding exercise of the powers’ conferred by section (8) of the Cigarettes Ordinance 1979,” he added.
Virk, who also heads the anti-smuggling task force, admitted that it was very difficult to control smuggling near the Pak-Afghan border because there were fewer officials of the anti-smuggling squad in that region. “To curb cigarette smuggling is the priority of this government,” he said.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 31st, 2010.