"At my age, eating rice is now prohibited because rice contains carbohydrates. Carbohydrate intake is much lower in countries that are considered healthy. So in that sense, can I say that rice is forbidden? Can I say that you cannot eat rice? The use of rice should be banned!" said Dr M Harunur Rashid, a former professor of business studies from Dhaka University, in response to the draft to make an amendment to the Smoking and Using of Tobacco Products (Control) Act to ban e-cigarettes and limit the use of tobacco by the Ministry of Health.
Rice is a staple food in Bangladesh, and its necessity, or nutritional value, is backed by scientific evidence. How can a former professor of the country's best educational institution make a comparison between cigarettes and rice and wish to legitimise cigarettes? This statement is bound to raise questions.
We cannot quite explain why he advocated in favour of the harmful and universally established effects of cigarettes.
The Ministry of Health has recently prepared a draft to make an amendment to the Smoking and Using of Tobacco Products (Control) Act, 2005, to reduce the use of cigarettes. In the draft, there are several proposals, including the prohibition of smoking in public places and abolition of smoking corners, banning tobacco companies' direct or via third-party involvement in corporate social responsibility (CSR), prohibition of e-cigarettes, a separate licence for tobacco products' sale, prohibition of the sale of tobacco products through mobile shops and prohibition of the sale of single cigarettes.
If the amendments are made to the law, the number of direct tobacco users and the risk of exposure to second-hand smoke will reduce. The sale of tobacco by children and its free supply will decline, and new tobacco addiction among the youth will decrease.
Experts believe it will also fulfil Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's promise to reduce tobacco use to zero by 2041. However, after the draft was published, the tobacco companies actively tried to block it. Apart from hiring lobbyists at various levels, the companies have also started holding meetings and seminars.
On 28 July, a programme was held under the banner of the Intellectual Property Association of Bangladesh (IPAB) with university teachers, business leaders, tobacco industry representatives, television and newspaper senior officials, journalists and other influential people in a 5-star hotel in Dhaka. Speakers voiced a number of arguments on behalf of tobacco companies.
Dr M Harunur Rashid said, "Tobacco sector has a huge contribution to revenue generation. It has been an essential sector since before the independence of Bangladesh.
By producing tobacco and exporting tobacco leaves, the sector earns a considerable amount of foreign exchange. At the instigation of any particular quarters, the amendment of the Tobacco Act has been made in such a way that we are concerned that the provision of the Act may not be people-friendly, government-friendly or revenue-friendly but may create adverse repercussions."
In the last fiscal year, NBR collected revenue of Tk3 lakh crore, of which Tk27,830 crore came from VAT for the cigarette companies. But apart from tobacco, there are many other sectors for revenue. Experts believe that if the government utilises other sectors, it can do without the revenue from the tobacco industry.
Amendments to the Tobacco Act also include the proposal to ban e-cigarettes, which has been met with increasing popularity in Bangladesh. Public health experts have been recommending banning it before people get used to it.
However, former DU professor Rashid claimed that vaping e-cigarettes "will satisfy the tobacco urge and will not harm the body."
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said, e-cigarette emissions typically contain nicotine and other toxic substances that are harmful to both users and non-users who are exposed to the aerosols second-hand.
Additionally, some products claiming to be nicotine-free (electronic nicotine delivery systems) have been found to contain nicotine. Some recent studies suggest that using electronic nicotine delivery systems can increase the risk of heart disease and lung disorders.
According to the Intellectual Property Association of Bangladesh (IPAB) website, IPAB was established and registered under a government licence to work on Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) issues as a common platform for all stakeholders in Bangladesh. Apart from IPR awareness development, IPAB supports the concerned stakeholders in protecting IP owners' rights, consumers' rights and the government's rights.
MJL Bangladesh, Unilever Bangladesh, Square Pharmaceuticals, NOKIA, Marico Bangladesh, BEXIMCO Pharmaceuticals, GlaxoSmithKline are IPAB's corporate members.
British American Tobacco Bangladesh is also IPAB's corporate member and the Thursday event was, in fact, an event arranged by BAT under IPAB's banner, said experts.
The IPAB dialogue on policy review and its impact (Tobacco and Linkage Industry) is mainly a lobbying tactic on behalf of the cigarette companies. The speakers at the event said that, more or less, 70 lakh families are involved in the production of our country's tobacco products, and their livelihoods are under threat by introducing this law.
Cigarettes or bidis are popular among the products sold by hawkers. If they stop selling it, they will suffer financially.
153 MPs have already written to the Prime Minister to amend the Tobacco Control Act and ban e-cigarettes altogether. One of them is Prof Dr Habibe Millat MP.
Responding to the demands raised at the IPAB programme, Dr Habibe Millat told The Business Standard that, the tobacco companies talk about rehabilitating the victims of the tobacco sector. Still, they do not say that the government has already rehabilitated the tobacco farmers of Naogaon. Many people working at ferry ghats have lost their jobs due to the Jamuna or Padma bridges and moved to other jobs, the tobacco farmers will also choose new professions for a healthier life. Professionals working in the tobacco sector would be better off choosing a new career.
Criticising the draft amendments to the Tobacco Act, M Harunur Rashid said banning the sale of single cigarettes is a ridiculous proposal. If these amendments become law, they will be damaging and repugnant.
Dr Nizam Uddin Ahmed, a public health expert and the executive director of the Shastho Shurokkha Foundation told The Business Standard, that various studies have shown that stopping the sale of single-stick cigarettes will reduce the tendency to smoke cigarettes. Students and low-income people usually buy one or two cigarettes and smoke. Many people start smoking habits by buying one or two cigarettes. Many are forced to stop smoking if one has to buy a pack of cigarettes. So it is important to stop the sale of cigarette sticks.
Speakers at the event said cigarette companies cannot advertise, so if they don't display cigarettes at the point of sale, they will suffer. The amendment to include "tea stores" under public places is against Bengali culture. They opined that if these amendments are made into law, it will be destructive and hateful.
About the program organised by the IPAB, Prof Dr Habibe Millat said that cigarette companies are very powerful and they have a lot of money. So they want to pressure the government against the draft law amendment by holding an event at a five-star hotel.
The statement of a leader of FBCCI at Thursday's event also found the truth of Dr Habibe Millat's words. A FBCCI leader there said most of the proposed amendments conflict with the tobacco business. The leader said they would soon sit down with the higher levels of the government about the policy and would be able to amend the policy if necessary.
Journalist leaders said at the event that it is not right to take a decision to reduce the state's revenue during the global crisis. They also criticised the notion that tobacco companies cannot do CSR activities.
However, there was no discussion about how much the government spends annually on tobacco-related diseases. CSR activities of the tobacco companies did not come up in the discussion either.
"The government spends more on treatment than the revenue it gets from tobacco companies. Tobacco companies do concerts in the name of CSR where there is provision for smoking cigarettes," said Dr Habibe Millat.
In the event, the leaders of IPAB claimed that the opinion of the participants was not taken regarding the amendment of the draft of the Tobacco Control Act.
However, this claim is not true. On 16 June, 2022, the draft amendment proposal was published on the National Tobacco Control Cell website for public scrutiny. Comments were taken till 14 July.
TV and newspaper journalists who went there to cover the event organised by IPAB were invited to a separate room by the PR team and paid in the honorarium's name.