The government is contemplating a tougher policy for controlling tobacco use in the country.
According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the prime minister's tobacco-free Bangladesh is not possible with cigarettes still being considered an 'essential' commodity.
On 20 July, Hossain Ali Khondakar, coordinator (additional secretary) of the National Tobacco Control Cell (NTCC) of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) under the Ministry of Health, wrote to Commerce Secretary Tapan Kanti Ghosh in this regard.
In the letter, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare requests the Ministry of Commerce to amend The Control of Essential Commodities Act, 1956 to remove cigarettes from the essential commodities list.
The letter also says Health Minister Zahid Maleque has consented to the matter.
Any product covered by the Essential Commodities Act enacted 66 years ago, can be freely promoted wholesale and retail throughout the country and no restrictions can be imposed on the marketing of these products even under emergency circumstances.
Workers in the essential commodities sector cannot even call a strike and no essential commodities can be hoarded.
When the whole country went into lockdown during the Covid-19 outbreak, tobacco companies were still operating but ready-garment factories, the country's main export sector, were shut down.
At that time, the Ministry of Industries even wrote to the deputy commissioners about the unabated marketing of cigarettes across the country.
As per this arcane law formulated in Pakistan times, there are many other products which are not at all essential products in the present context.
In 2013, the government added several other products to this list, including soybean and palm oils, turmeric, pepper, and cumin, but did not remove any old products from the list.
Under this Act, the Ministry of Commerce sets the price of edible oil and sugar, and at various times conducts anti-hoarding operations.
According to the existing law, apart from cigarettes, products like batteries for flashlights, sewing machines and their spare parts, typewriters, timber, tallow, 35 mm (cine) raw films, and coal, are still defined as essential products.
In 2016, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed determination to make Bangladesh tobacco-free by 2040 at the closing session of the South Asian Speakers' Summit organised by the Bangladesh National Parliament and Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Because cigarettes are listed as an essential product, it is not possible for the government to implement The Smoking and Using of Tobacco Products (Control) Act as the Essential Commodities Act is inconsistent with this Tobacco Products Act.
According to the Ministry of Health, more than 7,000 chemical elements are present in cigarette smoke, of which 250 are deadly, and 70 chemicals are directly responsible for causing cancer in the human body.
Cigarettes are, however, the largest source of government revenue. The Large Taxpayers Unit of the National Board of Revenue (NBR) collected Tk27,830 crore in value-added tax (VAT) and excise duty from cigarettes in fiscal year 2021-22.
The revenue stood at Tk26,920 crore in FY2020-21. Apart from the Large Taxpayers Unit, various VAT Commissionerates collect revenue from cigarettes.
According to 2018 estimates of the Bangladesh Cancer Society, the government spent Tk30,570 crore in fiscal 2017-18 to treat patients affected by tobacco use.
According to the Ministry of Health, one whole tree is cut down to produce 300 cigarettes and 3.7 litres of water is wasted to produce just one cigarette.