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Tobacco Industry reaps rich harvest while COVID devastates the world

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, STOP (Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products), a global tobacco industry watchdog, has strongly urged governments and civil society to hold tobacco companies accountable for the burden they have placed on people and health systems.

COVID-19 has swept through the world, with serious and often fatal consequences. For smokers in particular, it spells really bad news because smoking impairs lung function, making it harder for the body to fight off coronaviruses and other diseases that primarily attack the lungs.

Tobacco is known to cause diseases which put people infected by Covid at higher risk for developing severe setbacks and death.

Tobacco smokers may also be more physically vulnerable to contracting Covid-19, as the act of smoking involves contact of fingers with the lips, which increases the danger of transmission.

“The World Health Organization has recently termed tobacco as a known risk factor for many respiratory infections and said that it increases the severity of respiratory diseases, as in the case of coronaviruses. In April, a review of studies found that smokers are more likely to develop severe disease with COVID-19, compared to non-smokers,” said Dr. Malik Imran, the head of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC).

According to Dr Imran, while several countries have banned tobacco products amid the Covid outbreak, Pakistan’s tobacco industry has demonstrated zero responsibility towards reducing its impact.

Based on WHO’s 2013 estimate of smoking prevalence, as many as 19.1% of Pakistan’s adult population currently use tobacco. The Pakistan Pediatrics Association has estimated that 1,000 to 1,200 children aged 6 to 16 years take up smoking every day in the country.

A State Bank of Pakistan report revealed that contrary to WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) guidelines, the production of cigarettes actually increased by 92% in the first quarter of the financial year 2018.

Tobacco companies use slick and persuasive marketing to promote their product and they should be held accountable if smoking results in disease and death.

The tobacco industry uses clever marketing techniques to promote tobacco while well aware of its health hazards; the nicotine in cigarettes is often manipulated to deliver the most effective dose to maintain addiction, and tobacco companies have deliberately concealed these facts.

Even before the pandemic, tobacco placed an enormous burden on over-worked healthcare systems around the world. A 2018 WHO study estimated that in a single year, $422 billion in health costs were the result of smoking. Now, as healthcare systems scramble to escalate capacity for the rapidly growing number of Covid-19 patients, inadequate public health investment and infrastructure will need even more funding. The scenario is worse for poorer countries: per capita health spending in Pakistan is a mere 0.5% the level of that in the United States.

Tobacco companies have been engaging in reprehensible PR gimmicks during the pandemic. Under the guise of CSR, they have supplied ventilators, masks and PPE to health facilities and made donations to charities. These token gestures come nowhere near compensating for the vast damage caused and the rich profits reaped.

The Covid pandemic has brought into sharp focus the immense human and financial costs of healthcare and investments in better public health. The economic cost of smoking in Pakistan is estimated to be Rs 143.208 billion annually; this includes direct costs related to healthcare expenditures and indirect costs related to lost productivity.

The FCTC’s final objective is a tobacco-free world, but this is unlikely to happen in the near future. How then should authorities deal with this problem, especially in the light of the pandemic?

Being a signatory to the FCTC, Pakistan should take immediate measures to discourage smoking. Extensive research has shown that when tobacco prices increase, fewer people begin using tobacco, more people quit, and users reduce their consumption. This is especially true for youths and other price-sensitive consumers.

Governments like Pakistan that have ratified the FCTC, a global treaty, have the power to hold tobacco companies financially and legally accountable for their abuses. They can make tobacco companies pay for the damage they have caused before and during the pandemic and use the revenue generated to fund critically needed healthcare system enhancement.

Further, they can Increase the cost of selling tobacco by imposing various fees, including licensing, registration, manufacturing and retail fees, and levying penalties for non-compliance.

And finally they should eliminate all preferential treatment and loopholes which tobacco companies have been enjoying.

The government must use its power to regulate the tobacco industry and take action to stop people smoking: it is suggested that tobacco companies could be sued or tougher legislation enacted. Providing healthcare for smoking-related disease is a cost that should be borne by the tobacco industry, not by the non-smoking taxpayer.

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