In 2018, Raihan started smoking. He mentioned he had just completed his higher secondary exam when he had his first puff. He also said he was the latecomer amongst his friends as many of them started smoking cigarettes and using vapes while they were still in their high schools.
We asked Raihan what attracted him to start smoking. Raihan replied, "On my way to college, I passed several roadside tea stalls and shops every day. Everyone was smoking there. Also, the sellers' booth had the packets displayed. The vibrant gold, red and blue colours of the packet attracted me as well. But I never tried smoking back then. I remember having my first puff when I was traveling by train to attend my university selection examination. I, along with a few of my friends smoked beside the washroom."
In Bangladesh, smoking is prevalent among middle-class male teenagers and even more prevalent among youths from nearby slums.
The Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (control) Act, 2005, as amended in 2013, is the principal law governing tobacco control in Bangladesh. The law also, in many ways, aligns with the international treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
According to Section 4 (1) of the Tobacco Control Act, Smoking is prohibited in all forms of public places, workplaces, and public transport. But smoking has been allowed in public areas and public transport in most cases. Like Raihan, many people throughout the country, thus smoke in public places.
Also, according to section 5 of the 2005 Act (as amended), advertising of tobacco products means conducting any commercial programs for encouraging the direct or indirect usage of tobacco or tobacco products. Section 16 gives the Government the power to make rules for the Act.
The Act does not say anything clearly about the ban on product display in sales outlets. Tobacco companies continue to promote their products by taking advantage of these restrictions. Dhaka Ahsania Mission's study entitled "Big Tobacco Tiny Target in Bangladesh" with the technical support of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK) found 90.5 percent of schools and playgrounds were found selling tobacco products within their 100-meter radius, and 81.87 percent of the point of sales displayed tobacco products at children's eye level (approximately 1 meter) and 64.19 percent of the tobacco products are being displayed beside candy, sweets or toys. Things, however, could have been different if provisions regarding this were amended.
Open sale of retail sticks and smokeless tobacco products is another reason for the rising number of smokers amongst the youths. Youths aged 18-25 years, most cannot afford to buy a packet of cigarettes. But as there is no law regarding the sale of retail sticks, the youths can easily get access to smoking with limited resources.
Bangladesh has indeed seen a decline in cigarette consumption since 2009. According to the Global Adult Tobacco Surveys (GATS) 2017, a relative reduction of 18.5 percent has occurred in the prevalence of current tobacco use since 2009, including a 22 percent relative decline in smoked tobacco use and a 24 percent decline in smokeless tobacco use. The total number of tobacco users has been reduced by 3.5 million despite the population increase that took place at the same time. However, the consumption of e-cigarettes has seen a rise.
The present law does not say anything about banning or controlling electronic cigarettes. These products are being imported and sold as they are not prohibited by law. Also, the most astonishing thing is, the youths consider the usage of e-cigarettes and vapes as a fashion statement which is very alarming. We must have an amendment to the existing law to control the usage of such things as well.
Bangladesh is still one of the largest consumers of tobacco around the world. Thus, if we are to stop the health hazards caused by tobacco consumption, we need to act as fast as we can, and fill the gaps of the law that still exist.
The author is a communications professional.
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.