By Syeda Sana Rasool
At times when the coronavirus pandemic has taken over the world, the tobacco industry in Pakistan and around the world is steering the masses to the false information.
“The tobacco industry is propagating confusion via social media, deemed as the biggest tool to spread fake news and blog posts. The industry is also accused of branding itself as a solution against COVID-19 by building immunity against the viral disease,” claims Malik Imran, a tobacco control activist.
According to the World Health Organization, tobacco consumption kills over eight million people around the world annually and has substantial economic costs as well, considering all forms of tobacco use, including heated tobacco products such as vaporizers, harmful.
“In a recent statement, the World Health Organization termed tobacco as a known risk factor for many respiratory infections and that it increases the severity of respiratory diseases, as in the case of coronavirus.
In April, a review of studies found that smokers are more likely to develop severe disease with COVID-19, compared to non-smokers,” said Imran, the head of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), in policy debate in Lahore on Tuesday.
“Despite all the warnings, the tobacco industry in Pakistan is striving to increase its production and propagating to once again get the maximum relation in taxes during pre-budget season.”
The WHO has warned researchers, scientists, and media about supporting unproven claims that tobacco or nicotine could reduce the risk of COVID-19, saying that there is insufficient information to confirm any link between tobacco or nicotine in the prevention or treatment of COVID-19.
Contrary to this, many blogposts backed by the tobacco industry are actively spreading false news since February, portraying the MNCs as assisting in the fight against coronavirus.
Imran, who has done research on tobacco trade, said while several countries have banned tobacco products amid corona outbreak, Pakistan’s tobacco industry and authorities are showing zero responsibility towards the cause.
According to him, tobacco companies were responsible for the loss of around 160,000 lives in the country as well as earning an annual profit of Rs42 billion just to itself as of the fiscal year 2017-18.
Pakistan’s tobacco industry is once again striving to influence the opinions of policy makers in pre-budget period to avoid higher taxes at a time when tobacco products should be banned.
In an advertisement published in a national newspaper, the tobacco industry claimed that illicit trade of cigarettes, which it claims to be at 44% via a sponsored study, is causing Rs44 billion loss to the national exchequer.
Contrary to this, two research studies jointly conducted by the Human Development Foundation (HDF), Pakistan National Heart Association (PANAH) and Fikr-e-Fardan Organization (HDF) found out that the illicit trade of cigarettes was merely at 10-15%.
Being a signatory to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Pakistan should take measures to discourage smoking which is possible with an increase in taxes that will result in a notable decrease in demand.
In contrast to WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control guidelines, State Bank of Pakistan’s report revealed that the production of cigarettes increased by 92% in the first quarter of the financial year 2018 which had decreased by a few per cent in 2015 and 2016, and then further fell by 40% in 2017.
“The tobacco industry is actively campaigning to disseminate its agenda because they are afraid that the coronavirus pandemic might affect their revenue and govt might actually be able to impose higher taxes,” says Imran Malik.
In an attempt to curb the hazards of tobacco, the Ministry of National Health Services has suggested the State Bank of Pakistan to strictly enforce tobacco control laws in all the banks.
It is high time we address the serious challenges posed by the tobacco industry amid coronavirus crisis and comply strictly with FCTC against giving any kind of tax incentives to the MNCs to avoid illicit trading and find alternative ways.