Industry interference threatening Bangladesh’s tobacco-free goal: study

The incessant interference from tobacco industry has put the public health of Bangladesh under substantial risk, a study has found.

The country’s score in the 2021 Tobacco Industry Interference Index stands at 72. It was 68 last year. The increase in score suggests a worsening trend, according to the report unveiled on Sunday. 

Research and advocacy organisation PROGGA and Anti-Tobacco Media Alliance, or ATMA, jointly unveiled the findings at an event.

Due to aggressive activities of tobacco companies during the COVID-19 pandemic, the implementation of World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and also the realisation of Bangladesh's own vision of being a tobacco-free country by 2040 are now under threat of being derailed, the researchers said.

“Tobacco is killing more people than COVID-19. Nonetheless, the government is yet to take effective tobacco control measures. The question arises whether the government bodies really hold the spirit of FCTC and Prime Minister Sheiokh Hasina’s vision of a tobacco-free country,” MP Saber Hossain Chowdhury, chairman of the parliamentary committee on environment, forestry and climate change ministry, said at the event.

Dr Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, economist and the convener of the National Anti-Tobacco Platform, said, "Bangladesh has made very poor performance in the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index. We also scored the poorest among our South Asian peers. Why did we perform so poorly?"

To improve the situation, he demanded divestment of the government's share in British American Tobacco Bangladesh and reinstatement of 25 percent export duty on tobacco.

Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, editor-in-chief of TV Today, said government bodies should not accept any aid from the tobacco industry. “Receiving donations from the tobacco industry is a clear violation of FCTC as well as in conflict with the declaration of the prime minister.”

The study findings show that Bangladesh has experienced an increase in tobacco industry interference during the January 2020-March 2021 period and there has been no progress in the implementation of Article 5.3 Guidelines.

Bangladesh also saw a recurrence of tobacco industry's attempt to interfere and exert influence in policymaking via diplomatic channel.

On behalf of Japan Tobacco Inc, the ambassador of Japan to Bangladesh wrote to the finance minister where the diplomat said any tobacco control measure that may hurt business interest of JTI would cause a cessation of the flow of Japanese investment in Bangladesh, according to the report.

It noted another “stark anti-public health move” that took place during the early days of the pandemic. In April 2020, the industries ministry exempted two transnational tobacco companies, BATB and JTI, from the obligations of nationwide lockdown through a government order.

The ministry also instructed the local administration and law-enforcing agencies to assist these companies to continue manufacturing, marketing, leaf purchase and other operations. It quickly turned down the health ministry’s request to withdraw such special permissions granted to tobacco companies.

Asian Tobacco Ltd, a Bangladeshi company, was allowed by Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority to establish a cigarette and tobacco processing plant in Ishwardi Export Processing Zone, where the company would enjoy tax exemption and other lucrative facilities.

Another notable incident was the endorsement from 10 MPs to the bidi industry’s demand for tax reduction in a letter to the finance minister.

The study mentioned that during the pandemic, tobacco companies ramped up their CSR activities to an “unprecedented” scale. “The companies successfully managed to exploit many crises created by COVID-19 pandemic to improve brand image and also to forge multi-faceted liaison with different influential government bodies while distributing protective and sanitising equipment, thus making pathways for future interferences.”

Like previous years, the National Board of Revenue and other government agencies continued to shower tobacco companies with awards and recognitions.

The researchers recommended amendment to the tobacco control law to make it more compliant with FCTC by including a comprehensive ban on tobacco companies' CSR activities, among other issues.

They also recommended the elimination of cigarettes from the list of essential commodities by amending the 1956 Essential Commodities Act and the formulation and implementation of a simple tobacco price and tax policy.

The study called for the divestment of government's share in tobacco companies, the finalisation of a code-of-conduct for relevant government officials in case of interaction with tobacco companies and their representatives, and the withdrawal of all incentives provided to tobacco companies along with a ban on investments in tobacco business.

The tobacco companies should also be declared ineligible for any government recognition and awards, the study said.

The study was conducted as a part of Bloomberg Philanthropies' Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products, or STOP project, and received overall support from the Global Centre for Good Governance in Tobacco Control at the School of Global Studies in Thammasat University.

The discussants at the event included Mary Assunta, head of global research and advocacy, GGTC, Muhammad Shafiqul Islam, Bangladesh country advisor, Vital Strategies, Muhammad Ruhul Quddus, Bangladesh country coordinator, Global Health Advocacy Incubator, Md Mostafizur Rahman, lead policy advisor, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Syed Mahfuzul Huq, national professional officer, World Health Organization, Syed Mahbubul Alam, technical advisor, The UNION and ABM Zubair, executive director, PROGGA. Nadira Kiron, chief reporter of ATN News and co-convener of ATMA, moderated the event. Md Hasan Shahriar, head of tobacco control, PROGGA, presented the findings.