The Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Environment, Forestry and Climate Change Saber Hossain Chowdhury has submitted a bill to the National Parliament seeking the exclusion of tobacco from the list of essential commodities.
Addressing a webinar, he said besides cement, fertiliser and baby food, tobacco also was included on the list of the Essential Commodities Act formulated in 1956 during the Pakistan period. It has not been changed yet.
"Taking the opportunity of this act, tobacco companies realised all kinds of facilities during the shutdown imposed to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. They even got incentives from the Covid-19 stimulus fund which is totally unacceptable," he said.
He added, "For this reason, I have already submitted a Private Member's Bill to exclude tobacco from the list of essential commodities."
Observing that tobacco is an essential product but only for causing death, not for life, the lawmaker said, "It cannot be on the list of essential commodities in any way. It is contrary to the fundamental right to life enshrined in the Constitution."
He stated this while addressing a webinar as the chief guest, organised on the occasion of the release of a study report titled "Tobacco Industry Interference Index: FCTC Article 5.3 Implementation Report, Bangladesh" on Saturday in Dhaka. The webinar was jointly organised by the research and advocacy organisation PROGGA (Knowledge for Progress) and Anti-Tobacco Media Alliance (ATMA).
Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha Chairman Prof Dr AAMS Arefin Siddique presided over the webinar while former Additional Secretary to Health Ministry and former Coordinator of National Tobacco Control Cell (NTCC) Muhammad Ruhul Quddus attended as the special guest.
Criticising the government for having shares in British American Tobacco Bangladesh, Saber Hossain said, "Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has promised to build a tobacco-free country by 2040. But sadly, different ministries have done a little to achieve the goal."
"When the health ministry issues a letter to close down tobacco companies during the shutdown, how does the industries ministry dare to ignore the instruction? The question being raised is whether the government wants to be free from the influence of tobacco companies," he added.
"On the one hand, the government wants to control tobacco use, and on the other, it has shares in a tobacco company. So, how can we eradicate tobacco?" he exclaimed.
The study report recommends a ban on all corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities by tobacco companies through an amendment to the existing Tobacco Control Act.
According to the study, tobacco companies have managed to exploit the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic to the fullest for their benefit, using CSR as a pretence to infiltrate policymaking and administration as well as extract a variety of benefits.
"While Bangladesh has made progress to some extent in the implementation of the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) Article 5.3, it is not satisfactory at all," says the study report.
The study shows that the tobacco industry has used the CSR programmes of companies as a pretence to get closer to policymakers, government officials and administration in order to exploit this connection to extract different benefits and interfere in tobacco control activities.
It should be noted that PROGGA has been conducting this study since 2018 to stress the need for the formulation of a policy in line with the FCTC Article 5.3 guidelines so that the tobacco industry can no longer interfere in the tobacco control activities of the government. Out of the 57 countries where the same study has been conducted, Bangladesh's position is 27th – the worst among South Asian countries.
The index attempts to gauge how the government responded to the tobacco industry's tactics, by using the FCTC Article 5.3 Guidelines based on the model questionnaire developed by SEATCA. The greater the score, the stronger interference it indicates.
The study was conducted with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies' Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products (STOP), is part of a global publication of the Global Centre for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC) at the School of Global Studies in Thammasat University.
The discussants' panel at the webinar included Md Shafiqul Islam, country advisor of Vital Strategies; Dr Syed Mahfuzul Huq, national professional officer, World Health Organisation; Syed Mahbubul Alam, technical advisor, The Union; M A Salam, grants manager of Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids; and ABM Zubair, executive director of PROGGA.
Mortuza Haider Liton, convener of Anti-Tobacco Media Alliance, delivered the welcome address.
The webinar was attended by representatives of the National Tobacco Control Cell, anti-tobacco organisations and civil society members. The News Editor of ATN Bangladesh and co-convenor of Anti-Tobacco Media Alliance (ATMA), Nadira Kiron, hosted the programme while the findings of the study were presented by Md Hasan Shahriar, head of the Tobacco Control Programme of PROGGA.