PM’s declaration to make Bangladesh tobacco free by 2040 remains an illusion: Adhunik Experts call for raising awareness against tobacco consumption and drug abuse among youths

Speakers at a seminar stressed the need for raising awareness among the public targeting new generation, especially those belonging to the underprivileged section of society, to prevent smoking and drug abuse.

A special attention should be paid to underprivileged people and children as they are more vulnerable to tobacco and drugs, they observed.

The seminar titled 'Anti tobacco and drug movement' was jointly organized by ADHUNIK (We Prevent Smoking), CATTT (Coalition against tobacco, tracts and terrorism), Chetona Parishad and WHO Healthy City Forum at DUCSU cafeteria on the Dhaka University campus on Saturday, marking the World No Tobacco Day 2018 with the theme 'Tobacco and heart disease'. It highlights the health and other risks, linked to tobacco and unleashes a public campaign for appropriate policies and measures designed to curb tobacco scourge.

In addition, tobacco control and its eventual ban have taken on a renewed sense of urgency in view of the Prime Minister's declaration to make Bangladesh a tobacco-free nation by 2040. Furthermore, the discussion naturally turned the spotlight on drug addiction, a subject that has of late moved to the centrestage in the national discourse, use of tobacco being the doorway to drug abuse.

Speaking on the occasion as the chief guest, Dhaka University Vice-chancellor Prof Dr Md Akhtaruzzaman said public awareness needs to be created to ensure a decent life for street children and underprivileged people instead of pushing them along the destructive path of tobacco and drug. He also appealed to include people from all walks of life in the process to raise the awareness level.

Amanullah Khan, a staunch anti-tobacco campaigner since 1988, in his inaugural address lamented "According to all available indications and the signs of the time, it appears highly unlikely that we will be anywhere nearer to attaining the coveted rather ambitious goal of tobacco free Bangladesh." He surmised we are rather backtracking on and veering from the course. Two years into the PM's declaration. Adhunik president summarized some of the hurdles blocking success as follows:

(a) Bangladesh has long been one of the largest tobacco growing and consuming countries in the world, (b) Over the years from 2007 to 2015, tobacco prevalence rate in Bangladesh has remained static at around 50%. With yearly rise in population the absolute number of smokers is climbing, (c) Weak enforcement of tobacco control laws and regulations, (d) Overdependence on tobacco for government revenue has continued almost unchanged during the last three years showing nominal decreases with tobacco accounting for about 30% to 28% of the total revenue collected from all products and services, sadly though rising in terms of value. (e) There have been only marginal increases in tax rate annually which have been wiped out by a system of tax that lends itself to abuse by tobacco companies compounded by an increasing affordability of tobacco products, (f) British American Tobacco Company, Bangladesh (BATB), the largest tobacco manufacturer in Bangladesh, located at Mohakhali in the capital Dhaka is one of the biggest tobacco factories in Asia, now is constructing yet another larger factory sprawling over 42 acres of land in Savar on the outskirts of the city. BATB's gross turnover has almost doubled from Tk. 10,958 crore to Tk. 20,414 crore over a period of 4 years to 2017. (g) The smokeless tobacco like jarda, gul, etc which are widely used particularly in rural Bangladesh has proved to be equally damaging as smoking tobacco still remains largely in the informal sector and outside the tax net, hardly yielding 1% of the tax revenue collected from cigarettes. (h) National Tobacco Control Cell (NTCC) formed under the Ministry of Health, is reportedly understaffed, has neither organogram nor any revenue budget and is dependent on foreign donation for day to day operations, though it has quite a lofty vision and mission to combat tobacco menace.

Adhunik president was dismayed at the fact that tobacco is the only addictive drug that is legally and almost freely available for sale in the open market and tobacco is the most profitable cash crop that causes environmental degradation of the worst proportion. He, however, drew some comfort from the fact that Adhunik which has been campaigning since 1990s to move from tobacco control to total ban, the nation under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's leadership has set its sight on eradication of tobacco pandemic from Bangladesh. The anti tobacco activist however acknowledged that the government has taken some positive steps to rein in tobacco but they hardly go far enough to make much of a difference to the ground realities.

Attributing the lack of progress on tobacco front to a collective failure, he urged the government to draw up a national strategy, plan of action, policy guideline backed by a legal framework with a specific annual time schedule till deadline 2040. The entire process should be overseen and monitored by a high-powered coordination committee constituted by the government consisting of all state and non-state actors and stakeholders.

Calling upon all to come forward to fight against narcotics, Director General of Department of Narcotics Control Jamal Uddin Ahmed said, "With every passing year, drug consumption is increasing." "Department of Narcotics Control is ready to provide its all-out support to the organisations which are interested to work against drug abuse and tobacco use," he added.

While presiding over the programme, Senior Secretary of Public Administration Ministry Dr Md Mozammel Haque Khan observed narcotics cause a huge loss of intellect and productivity.

Former joint secretary of Education Ministry Shyama Prasad Bepari, president of CATTT Ali Neyamat, secretary of Religious Affairs Ministry Md Anisur Rahman, among others, spoke on the occasion.

Earlier, they formed a human chain in front of DUCSU Bhaban and distributed Eid dresses among street children.

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