Selling cigarettes the wrong way

What was even more disturbing was sheer volumes of cigarettes not only being sold, but also openly hawked


Nadia Fazal Jamil May 11, 2015
The writer is a prominent actor, TV anchor and activist. She sits on the boards of several charities and educational institutions

As a die-hard Lahori, I can often be seen (by those with a keen enough eye) frequenting the city’s lesser known and more authentic, eateries, shopping havens, and other such unique spots. A week or so ago, my cousin, confidante, and partner in crime, Zahra, and I set off in search for the perfect paan. We’d been told by various paan aficionados that the area around Regal Chowk was where to look for these. As we pottered from one paan shop to another, Z (a chronic smoker that she is) realised that she was out of smokes. And so we stopped at the closest khoka to get a pack of cigs.

The transaction itself went fairly smoothly — as such transactions generally do — and had that been that, I would not have found myself writing this. What disturbed me, writhing around in my brain like a carnivorous worm, burrowing deep into my psyche, was what I observed when I actually saw the pack of cigarettes. Now, as a former smoker myself (and also having spent a fair amount of time outside of Pakistan), I have become quite accustomed to the presence of customary health warnings. You know what I’m talking about: those graphic labels, often accompanied by scary pictures of how smoking will cause cancer, or emphysema, or some other serious disease.

Now, I’d never actually thought about the matter from this perspective: that fake or smuggled cigarettes usually do not carry health warnings and, therefore, should be avoided; at best, they’ll taste like sun-dried manure, or at worst, cause even more serious health issues. To be honest, I’d never really thought about the issue at all. However, being the mother of a 12-year-old son, who is at that precarious age easily influenced by well-advertised products that seem ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ or somehow ‘sophisticated’, I thought this bore some looking into.

Before raising all Hell, however, I decided to visit a few more shops and khokas in other parts of the city to see whether there was a pattern. I visited a wide range of shops in completely disparate neighbourhoods of Lahore, ranging from small parts of the Old City, to the posh locales of Defence and Gulberg. To my dismay, the vast majority were displaying smuggled brands — almost all of which were being openly sold without any relevant health warnings. I also discovered that several ‘smuggled’ brands — which (while they do carry the requisite warnings) in many cases looked to be several-month-old, creating their own lot of health-related issues. The different types of ‘illegal’ cigarettes (this was corroborated by several shopkeepers; they didn’t seem to have many qualms about it) included locally manufactured brands, brands probably smuggled in from Afghanistan (which I’ve discovered is a major source of smuggled and illegal tobacco), brands imported from Dubai duty-free, and European brands. Additionally, there were other ‘low-cost’ brands which I assumed were smuggled in from Japan and South Korea (given their incredibly low price points).

To me, it seemed clearly obvious that many of these local and smuggled ‘brands’ were targeting the youth with their posters and offers — not to mention, their incredibly low price points, and lack of health warnings. One shopkeeper confessed that his store had recently been raided by the Federal Board of Revenue and the health ministry and that all the smuggled goods had been confiscated; but, he said, they still stocked illegal or smuggled brands, but only sold them on specific request. He added that his most popular customers for such brands included young kids and teenagers, as these were the only brands they could afford.

Witnessing the flagrant manner in which these smuggled cigarette brands were being advertised and sold without any health warnings left my blood more than a little hot. What was even more disturbing was the sheer volumes of cigarettes not only being sold, but also openly hawked by various smaller shops and khokas. As with most countries of the world, Pakistan has strict restrictions on the advertising and promotion of cigarettes; as such, health warnings on cigarette packs ought to be a given. And yet, it seems that there is a chasm between legislation and implementation.

This begs the question: what does one do as a responsible citizen when one sees such blatant disregard for the law? What concerns me are mainly three things: 1) that various smuggled cigarette brands are being sold widely with apparent impunity; 2) that the vast majority of brands lack any relevant health warnings, so that even if one buys them, one may not be cognisant of the related health risks (this is especially relevant for under-age smokers); and 3) that the price points for these brands are such that they automatically attract the poorest, least educated and the youth.

While I’m tempted to gather a group of my nearest and dearest ones to visit each and every one of these shops, and burn the illegal brands, this is clearly not a sustainable effort. Instead, our government and related authorities need to wake up and realise that small as it may seem this, too, is a menace that needs to be addressed. The laws are there — now it’s time our government stepped in and enforced them.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 12th,  2015.

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COMMENTS (10)

Pnpuri | 6 years ago | Reply Cigarette industry is a big source of revenue and countries including India and also advanced countries do not ban sale of cigarettes. Cigrettes industry spent large amount on lobbying and therefore politicians in place of taking care of citizens look after multinationals producing cigrettes. Recently in India a section of parliamentarians even requested for postponing imposition of more effective warning on cigarettes packet doubting research with regard to adverse fatal effect of tobacco smoking. High taxation on cigrettes may be a dampener ,but no tax is paid on smuggled cigrettes. It is like duty free and no health warning. Though I have sympathy for farmers but one wonders whether some thing which is dangerous to human life be permitted as it provides employment. farmers and workers are merely a convenient front for multinational companies to make profit and governments to meet their budgetary deficit. But in case of smuggled cigrettes neither the farmers and worker of Pakistan gets employment nor government makes money.
Atif | 6 years ago | Reply Only Pakistan Tobacco Company has the license to mess with people's health in Pakistan. It is our ethical and legal duty as citizens of Pakistan to point out any person (or syndicate) that attempts to cut into their share.
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