The foremost impediment to a tobacco-free Bangladesh is the incessant interference of tobacco industry at policymaking of the country. The sorry state manifests itself at the ‘Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023’ where Bangladesh scores 72, the worst such score among its South Asian peers. As per the study findings, most of the industry interference occurred on the issue of the amendment of tobacco control law. While three years have passed, the government is yet to pass the draft amendment of Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) (Amendment) Act 2013. Experts said this today (26 November) during a webinar titled ‘Tobacco Industry Interference Index: Report on the Implementation of FCTC Article 5.3’, organized jointly by research and advocacy organization PROGGA (Knowledge for Progress) and Anti-Tobacco Media Alliance (ATMA).
The Chief Guest of the event, Saber Hossain Chowdhury MP, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, said, “The directive for strengthening our tobacco control law came from the Honorable Prime Minister. I can’t help but wonder why it is taking so much time despite the PM’s support behind the initiative. We often take pride on our achievement in the health sector. Then why are we failing to take meaningful action when tobacco is taking hundreds of thousands of lives every year? We must prioritize public health above everything else.” In his speech as the Chair of the event, distinguished economist and the convener of the National Anti-Tobacco Platform, Dr. Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad said, “The government must divest its share in tobacco companies. Tobacco companies should also be declared ineligible for all sorts of accolades. CSR programs of tobacco industry must also be banned. We have been raising such demands for quite a few years but to no avail. May be there will be a time when our policymakers and govt. offices will indeed pay heed to what we have to say.” The Special Guest of the event, Hossain Ali Khondoker, Coordinator (Additional Secretary), National Tobacco Control Cell (NTCC) said, “We have achieved considerable progress in the ongoing amendment initiative. However, tobacco companies are repeatedly trying to put obstacles on our way. We must stay alert.” Mary Assunta, Head of Global Research and Advocacy, Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control and the other special guest of the event, said, “Clearly the transnational tobacco companies want Asia and Bangladesh is an important target market to increase their profits. They will challenge and oppose any government action that threatens their profits. The government is obligated to protect public health, not help an industry that sells addiction and harm. Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC is a powerful tool the government can use to save lives for a healthier Bangladesh.”
It was revealed in the study that Bangladesh has made no progress in countering interference of tobacco industry and implementation of FCTC Article 5.3. In its letter to the National Board of Revenue (NBR), British American Tobacco Bangladesh (BATB) voiced its ‘concern’ that the government will lose billions in revenue once the draft amendment is passed. Taking BATB’s intentional misinterpretation of the amendment into account, NBR accordingly wrote to the Health Services Division (HSD) expressing similar concern. National Association of Small and Cottage Industries of Bangladesh (NASCIB) also sent a letter addressed to the Honorable Prime Minister where it vehemently opposed the law amendment. Simultaneously, a number of so-called international experts, who are also recipients of tobacco industry funds, urged the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) not to ban e-cigarettes through the amendment. The report also exposed cases where tobacco companies were seen engaging non-health ministries, government, and autonomous organizations in its corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs such as afforestation, water purification, setting up solar panels, Covid-19 vaccination registration booths etc. As a continuation of previous years, NBR and some other govt. bodies kept handing over accolades to tobacco companies in gala events often attended by ministers, state ministers, and secretaries. Such events create opportunity for tobacco companies to get close to influential govt. bodies and policymakers, paving the way for future interference. However, the study period also saw some positive developments as well, such as declaring tobacco companies ineligible for the prestigious President’s Award for Industrial Development, cancelling industry-funded workshops at Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) etc.
In addition to interference-free passage of the amendment, the study also recommends raising awareness about the implementation of FCTC Article 5.3, finalizing code-of-conduct for govt. officials in line with FCTC Article 5.3, eliminating any scope for foreign direct investment (FDI) in tobacco sector, eliminating cigarettes from list of essential commodities by amending the 1956 Essential Commodities Act, divesting govt. shares from tobacco companies, and formulation and implementation of a simple tobacco tax and price policy.
The global study was conducted in a total of 90 countries. The study assesses how the government responded to the tobacco industry’s tactics by using the FCTC Article 5.3 Guidelines. The lower the score, the lower the overall level of interference it indicates. Brunei (Score 14) tops this year’s list as the country with least tobacco industry interference. Scoring 100, Dominican Republic, on the other hand, finds itself at the very bottom of the global index. Bangladesh has scored 72, the worst performance among South Asian countries. PROGGA (Knowledge for Progress) has been releasing Tobacco Industry Interference Index, Bangladesh since 2018. Funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the study also received support from Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) and Global Centre for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC).
The discussants of the event include Md. Mostafizur Rahman, Lead Policy Advisor, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK)- Bangladesh, Syed Mahbubul Alam, Technical Advisor, Vital Strategies, Bangladesh; Nadira Kiron, Co-Convener, ATMA and ABM Zubair, Executive Director, PROGGA. Mortuza Haider Liton, Convener, ATMA delivered the welcome speech. Nafiur Ahmed, Coordinator, PROGGA hosted the event while Mr. Hasan Shahriar, Project Head, PROGGA (Knowledge for Progress) presented the study findings. Civil society leaders and representatives of different media outlets and anti-tobacco organizations attended the event.