Tobacco Control Act: Further amendment is luxury
It is not just foolish, but dangerous, when new measures are invented for tobacco control, while the high-priority provisions in the existing law remain widely unenforced. The tobacco consumption situation in Bangladesh is far from where it should be. But we do have legislations for controlling this situation. The real situation, however, is frustrating because the tobacco control laws do not seem to have much effect. It is an issue that is immensely significant for public health and the future generations.
Let's look at the prevailing scenario. Twenty Five million people endures second-hand or "passive" smoke only in public transport, according to data by Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) and 13% people in hospitals get exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke. In total Thirty One million people are exposed to second-hand smoking.
The total number of smoker currently is almost eleven million in the country. Notably Twenty million use smokeless tobacco products. Children are most vulnerable to second-hand smoking. Children are unable to avert this. But the existing laws provide protection against this for children.
Recently, there have been calls to amend the relevant laws in order to mitigate the use of tobacco products. A number of private development organizations and agencies made the demand. Since 2003, Bangladesh has been a signatory to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). In 2005 the tobacco control law was passed and later the law was amended in 2013.
The amended law included provisions of fine not exceeding three hundred Taka preventing smoking in open spaces. Another provision was inserted as section 6A for protecting children from egregious effects of tobacco. It says that no one under the age of 18 can sell tobacco products or no one can employ them to do so. Violation of this provision results in fine of Tk 5 thousand and repeated violation may cause double of the fine.
Now there is a fresh demand for amending the legislation again. But before further amendments, we need to take a few factors into account and be mindful of certain realities in the interest of ensuring effective enforcement of laws relating to tobacco. We need to concentrate on the enforcement of provisions inserted in 2013 by way of amendments. What has been the picture of tobacco control and consumption scenario in Bangladesh in the seven years since the amendments? And we also need to look at the justifications behind the demands for further amendments.
One of the main demands for amendments in the law is to eliminate all the designated places for smoking and a ban on smoking in public places. This is interesting, because smoking in public places already declared illegal by the law long before ago. This in fact is the most pro-people and pro-public health provision in this law. But it is dreadful that till this day there has not been any visible enforcement of this provision. What's more, there are no designated places for smoking. This seemingly could not have been done in seven years since the amendment of the law in 2013.
But this was the primary and main instrument that was supposed to save women and children from second hand smoking. A strict enforcement of using only smoke-zones for smoking is widely believed to act as an effective mitigation tool, i.e. people will smoke less than usual. This is an established tool that all experts agree on and advocate for this. If smoke zones are eliminated--according to the new demand--it will achieve nothing, but continue non-smokers to endure second hand smoke.
There is also the demand for a ban on selling of single stick cigarette (cigarette sticks that are sold separately from their original package). But who will be affected most by such a ban? Most--as many as 90%, if not more--of small retailers in the country sell single cigarettes.
A ban like this only benefit the wholesalers and will make hundreds of thousands of sellers jobless, who always have very low working capital, and ultimately unable to buy in any large quantities. Implementing such a ban is a sure-fire way of snatching away the income of a significant number of people.
The real question is however, will this actually make smokers quit. In Bangladesh, one pack of lower-tier cigarettes cost Tk45-50, and nearly 72% of the smokers buy the lower-tier products. The lower and middle tier tobacco users together make up nearly 84% of the total consumers. If selling of single cigarette is banned, it is likely to increase consumption, not bring it down!
What this essentially means is that the primary and most important goal in tobacco control should be the enforcement of the existing laws, and not inventing measures that only work within the realms of fantasy. Without basic awareness of the current law and proper implementation, we will not see any significant improvement, even if the existing law is amended.
The existing law can be very effective in mitigating exposure to second hand smoking, the least we should achieve in tobacco control. And implementing the law regarding smoking in public places can potentially reduce instances of smoking. And that is a victory any realistically minded person will take.
The writer is a lawyer at Bangladesh Supreme Court