Tobacco free Bangladesh, what stands in the way
Bangladesh has a tobacco consumption rate of 35 per cent according to Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS). It used to be almost 50 per cent not so long ago. This means almost half of all adults used to consume tobacco. Between 2009-2017 Bangladesh has seen 18.5 percent reduction in tobacco use, one of the highest in the world during that time.
Indeed, Bangladesh has come a long way in achieving its goals to become tobacco free by 2040. It's a goal set by the premier Sheikh Hasina. She has given specific guidelines in a speech at the South Asian Speake's Summit, 2016, at Sonargaon. We are the first signatories of FCTC (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control), a worldwide convention brought on by WHO to the big tobacco companies.
According to Tobacco Atlas Data, this year more than 1,50,000 people lost their lives in Bangladesh due to tobacco related illnesses. And according to WHO, the health burden only on economic terms in the country is Tk30,000 crore every year. The more we can reduce tobacco use in this country, the better it will fare for our public health, economy, and of course, by extension, our overall development.
Yet, we must not forget who we are up against, we are up against powerful companies whose annual profit is bigger than most poor countries. These powerful companies have set up colonial-time structures in different countries to defy the efforts to curb tobacco use.
Being a foreign company, British American Tobacco (BAT) has managed to make Bangladesh government invest almost ten per cent stake in their business. There are at least 6 board members from high ministerial position in Bangladesh who are right now directors at BAT. Their positions are mostly ceremonial, they are there to attend some board meetings and to receive payments and benefits from the companies. This sugar-daddy policy has led to sloth implementation of tougher TC laws.
Thus, it should not come to us as a surprise when on October 23, 2019, a report was released by STOP (Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products) positioning Bangladesh third among the countries with the highest tobacco industry interference at policy level. These interactions with the govt need to stop at any cost. The ten per cent share needs to be divested from. Or else these death selling companies will keep influencing every law to control them and our fight against tobacco companies would be short lived.
Sarker Shams Bin Sharif is the Communication Lead of Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (CTFK), Bangladesh
Government needs to withdraw its tobacco investments
In the given situation where the government maintains partnership with tobacco companies, building a tobacco free country within 2040 is not possible. If the government is truly sincere in its promises to build a tobacco free nation, they must withdraw the investments or partnerships with the tobacco companies.
As of now, the government maintains ten percent stake in BAT. Due to this government investment and partnerships, some important secretaries from multiple ministries work in the board of directors in multinational tobacco companies.
Consequently, these personnel, who are working there on behalf of the government, often turn out as the medium of interventions for the tobacco companies in the government policy making. They can easily create influence in the government policy very effectively. If the government, however, withdraws its share from the tobacco sector, these lines of interventions can be eliminated.
The government signed the Article 5.3 of WHO FCTC in 2008. Until last year, there was no monitoring agency to look into the implementation processes of this Article. Since last year, Progga has been working as a monitoring agency in this pursuit. This year, the second report was published.
To make sure that the government makes progress to the way ahead for a tobacco free future, we have to address the major hurdles in its way and take necessary steps to face the challenges.
Firstly, as stated above, the government must ensure that they withdraw its tobacco investments.
Secondly, only the participation of health ministry in the process towards a tobacco free future will not suffice. We need to ensure the participation of all the stakeholders of the government and the other related ministries, including the ministry of finance and ministry of agriculture into the process.
And thirdly, local code of conducts must be developed under the WHO FCTP Article 5.3. The WHO FCTP Article 5.3 defines how the governments should conduct with the tobacco companies. Local code of conducts of the Article 5.3 will ensure that in terms of government interaction with the tobacco companies, the WHO FCTP recommendations are properly maintained.
Hasan Shahriar is the Head of Tobacco Control Programme, Progga