The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has seriously underscored the need for achieving a tobacco-free Bangladesh. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and other public health organisations have already identified that tobacco products help Covid-19 infections spread due to frequent hand-mouth contact of the users.
According to the WHO, smokers are at higher risk of developing severe Covid-19 outcomes and death, compared to non-smokers. Even victims of secondhand smoking are also at an equally higher risk than non-smokers.
In Bangladesh, 37.8 million people use tobacco with another 40 million being exposed to secondhand smoking regularly. Both the users of tobacco products and victims of secondhand smoking are at grave risk of severe illness from Covid-19 infection.
Besides, tobacco claims roughly 1,26,000 lives a year in Bangladesh. If the country fails to curb its tobacco use through an effective amendment of tobacco control law, tobacco-related deaths, exacerbated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and any other future health crises, will skyrocket to the level of an epidemic.
According to Article 18(1) of the Constitution of Bangladesh, the responsibility of improving and safeguarding public health is one of the fundamental principles of state policy. Article 32 of the Constitution also ensures the protection of the right to live.
The government of Bangladesh is also a signatory to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and has adopted a tobacco control law in line with the convention. Both the 8th Five Year Plan (FYP) of Bangladesh and the target 3A of Sustainable Development Goals put great importance on the implementation of the FCTC.
Tobacco, in addition, is also a huge burden on the economy of Bangladesh. In FY 2017-18, the economic burden due to tobacco usage (medical expenses and loss of productivity) stood at Tk30,560 crore which is much higher than the revenue earned from the tobacco sector which is Tk22,810 crore.
Realising the devastating impact of tobacco on national life, the Honourable Prime Minister of Bangladesh has declared her vision for a tobacco-free Bangladesh by 2040 and also put stress on amending the existing tobacco control law to make it more compliant with the FCTC. To implement the HPM's directive, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) has recently taken the time-fitting initiative of amending the tobacco control law.
Eliminating the provision in the existing law for 'designated smoking areas (DSAs)' or 'smoking zones' in public places and public transports will greatly contribute to harvesting the full benefits of the tobacco control law. The existence of 'smoking zones' in otherwise smoke-free areas, on the other hand, does not safeguard people from secondhand smoking.
So, the provision for DSAs or 'smoking zones' conflicts with public health and hinders the implementation of smoke-free areas in public places and transportations. According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) 2017, 42 percent of all adults who work in a covered space become victims of passive smoking at work regularly.
The scenario of passive smoking in mass transports is still quite appalling. Almost 25 million adults are exposed to passive smoking while using some public transport.
Secondhand smoke kills and facilitates Covid-19 infection. So, it is imperative to safeguard this huge demographic from the harms of secondhand smoke. To protect its people from Covid-19 infection through secondhand smoke, Paraguay has implemented a total ban on smoking in all covered public places, workspaces, and mass transportations since December 2020.
To safeguard non-smokers from secondhand smoke, a total of 67 countries including Thailand, Nepal, Turkey, and the UK have implemented very comprehensive smoke-free laws which include the elimination of provisions for designated smoking zones. The elimination of such provisions in Bangladesh will undoubtedly be a time-fitting measure.
The loose sale of bidi and cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products (jarda and gul) also works as an impediment to the tobacco control of Bangladesh. The loose sale allows adolescents and the youth as well low-income people to buy these products quite easily and at very little expense.
Moreover, when the tobacco products are bought loose, not in packs, it renders the graphic health warning (GHW) on the packs completely ineffective.
Once the sale of loose or small packs of bidi and cigarettes stops, it will also discourage adolescents and the youth from initiating this deadly practice in the first place. Article 11 of FCTC also recommends the governments stop the sale of single sticks or small packs of bidi and cigarettes.
So far, 118 countries have implemented this recommendation. For Bangladesh, amending tobacco control law at the earliest to incorporate such a provision will be highly beneficial to public health. Some other provisions, such as banning the display of tobacco products at the point-of-sale, banning corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities of tobacco companies, banning e-cigarettes and other emerging tobacco products (ETPs) and increasing the area of graphic health warning (GHW) on tobacco packs should also be included in the amendment.
A comprehensive and strong tobacco control law is essential to realise a tobacco-free Bangladesh by 2040 and tackle any other epidemics or major health crises similar to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. There is no alternative to amending the tobacco control law at the earliest.
The author is the Executive Director of a Research and Advocacy organisation, PROGGA.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.