Tobacco control amendment law: please let it fly
The finance ministry has yet to realise that the tobacco industry does not only contribute towards 11% revenue earning of the government but also eats up a significant portion of the gross national product. The World Health Organisation in 2004 estimated that Bangladesh spends twice the money it earns from tobacco industry to treat tobacco-related illnesses, writes Tureen Afroz
EVERY year on May 31 we observe World No Tobacco Day. Member states of the World Health Organisation created World No Tobacco Day in 1987 to draw global attention to the tobacco epidemic and the preventable death and disease it causes. Worldwide it is a well-known fact that tobacco causes death. Tobacco, whether in smoking or chewing form, is a silent killer. It is like poison, the availabilities and/or trading of which must be controlled and regulated under proper statutory framework and enforcement mechanism. According to the World Health Organisation statistics, the global tobacco epidemic kills nearly 6 million people each year, of which more than 600,000 people are exposed to second-hand smoke. It is also estimated that if the present trend of tobacco use continues, it will kill up to 8 million people by 2030, of which more than 80 per cent will live in low- and middle-income countries. The yearly observance of World No Tobacco Day is thus aimed at informing the general public on, inter alia, ‘the dangers of using any kind of tobacco, the business practices of tobacco companies, what is to be done to fight the tobacco epidemic, and what people around the world can do to claim their right to health and healthy living and to protect future generations.’
In the international legal arena the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control, 2003 created an international consensus. Bangladesh is the first signatory state to this international convention. Therefore, Bangladesh has international obligation under the FCTC. However, under Article 145A of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, the country needs to enact effective domestic law to implement the spirit and direction of any international treaty signed or ratified so. Therefore, the Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) Act, 2005 was a very much need of time to implement the FCTC in Bangladesh.
Even though the 2005 act was claimed to be based upon the spirit of the FCTC, it did not comply with many of the basic provisions of the FCTC. The 2005 act has specific sections which are clearly against the spirit and text of the FCTC. Therefore, there has been consistent demand raised by civil society leaders including anti-tobacco activists in Bangladesh for amending the 2005 act to make it more FCTC compliant. Accordingly, a governmental committee to draft the amendment of the 2005 act was formed within the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. This committee was aided by a legal team of the International Legal Consortium of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. It may be mentioned that the consortium is a US-based international non-governmental organisation operating to fight against tobacco use and its deadly toll in the United States and around the world.
The committee for drafting the amending 2005 act after having a series of consultative meetings for about two and a half years with many other ministries including the food and disaster management, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, prepared a draft amendment law. The draft law is claimed to be more compliant with the FCTC standards. On December 19, 2011, this draft law was to be placed at the cabinet meeting for approval. However, just one day before the cabinet meeting, the finance minister was sent a letter by the British American Tobacco Bangladesh whereby they opposed the enactment of the draft amendment law. Eventually, the finance ministry stepped back, recalled the draft law and as such, it was listed out of the cabinet meeting agenda of December 19, 2011.
The BATB letter argued that the government would lose out on revenue if the draft law was enacted to support increase in tobacco tax. The essence of their argument was that since the draft law is stringer on the tobacco industry, many tobacco producing entities would be forced out of the market as they might not be able to compete or sustain and as such, the government would lose on its revenue. The letter further claimed that the tobacco industry in total currently pays over Tk 7,330 crore in revenue every year (11% of the total revenue of the government); of this the BATB alone pays Tk 4,804 Crore (62.48% of the total revenue from the tobacco industry). The finance ministry in a note over the letter immediately instructed the National Board of Revenue chairman to look into it at once.
It has been almost six months since then. No further development has been observed to move ahead with the draft law. The finance ministry seems to have been successful in freezing the draft law on the issue of the ‘so-called’ revenue impact. However, revenue impact cannot only be measured by financial data. Social cost-benefit analysis must also be done to gauge the entire revenue impact of a prospective legislation. The finance ministry has yet to realise that the tobacco industry does not only contribute towards 11% revenue earning of the government but also eats up a significant portion of the gross national product. The World Health Organisation in 2004 estimated that Bangladesh spends twice the money it earns from tobacco industry to treat tobacco-related illnesses. As a matter of fact, nearly 57,000 annual deaths and 382,000 disabilities are caused in Bangladesh due to tobacco-related diseases. Also, cost related to overall public health and environment created by the tobacco industry must also be taken into account. The finance ministry must, therefore, realise that the actual cost to the economy due to the activities of the tobacco industry in Bangladesh is much higher than what it contributes to national revenue earning. If that is so, the mere fear for a decrease of 11 per cent in revenue earning threshold cannot justify delaying the enactment process of the draft legislation.
Also, the finance ministry has ignored one very important ethical issue involved in tobacco control policymaking. Article 5.3 of the FCTC, to which Bangladesh is a signatory, clearly states that: ‘In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, (State) Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.’
The above provision suggests that Bangladesh, as a signatory to the FCTC, must protect its tobacco control policies from the commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry. However, in reality, the way the finance ministry has obstructed (or is delaying) the enactment process of the draft tobacco control law under pressure from the tobacco industry since December 18, 2011, it clearly proves that the finance ministry’s activity renders Bangladesh to be in violation of its international obligation under the FCTC. Instead of protecting the tobacco control policies of Bangladesh from tobacco industry intervention, the finance ministry seems to be rather working as an advocate for the tobacco industry and seems to have indulged itself in a ‘benefit finding mission’ to accommodate the tobacco industry position in the forthcoming draft amendment law. This is against the text and spirit of Article 5.3 of the FCTC.
The finance ministry thus needs to immediately loosen its grip on the draft tobacco control legislation and let it fly … fly really high to reach out to attain a healthy Bangladesh after going through the usual stages of cabinet approval and parliamentary enactment process.
Tureen Afroz is an associate professor of law, BRAC University.
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