Tobacco consumption, a major health issue

Smoking is one of the main public health challenges in the world today and the most important cause of preventable death worldwide. It is a key risk factor for noncommunicable diseases. There are 1.3 billion tobacco users in the world. This number would be even higher if tobacco did not kill half of its consumers. Every four seconds, tobacco takes on another life.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are over 23.9 million smokers in Pakistan, of whom approximately 166,000 die each year from tobacco-related illnesses. According to the Pakistan Institute for Development Economics (PIDE) study, tobacco wipes out 1.6% of GDP each time, which takes Rs 615 billion out of the economy as a health cost. What makes this statistic even worse is that Pakistan, being largely a youth population, puts many young people and children at risk for tobacco use.

According to a survey, around 1200 children start to smoke every day in Pakistan. The World Bank recommends an increase of at least 30 percent in taxes on tobacco products each year to reduce overall tobacco consumption.

Decades of deception and underhanded tobacco industry tactics have hooked generations of nicotine and tobacco users into this global epidemic. No action is taken by law enforcement agencies on this blatant violation. The tobacco industry still uses different tactics to target children and youth. The tobacco industry has understood the value of involving celebrities in their promotional tactics to encourage young people to start smoking.

A tobacco industry-backed campaign is circulating in the press and social media that overestimates the share of illicit trade in the tobacco market, so that the two biggest players in the market can evade legitimate tobacco taxes. In Pakistan, celebrities like Fawad Khan, Waseem Akram, who are role models for our younger generation and who are followed by millions of people, are being misled by the tobacco industry for promoting a speech about tobacco which discourages tobacco taxes. The tobacco industry that uses famous sports sponsors and approved products can influence attitude towards fitness products.

In the past, tobacco companies openly paid movie studios and stars to showcase their products. Tobacco and related industries are increasingly preyed upon by children and adolescents, engaging in advertising tactics such as sponsorship and influencer marketing to target them directly, threatening their health.

The cheap availability of cigarettes in the market increases affordability. In Pakistan, cigarettes are available at a much cheaper price than in the Southeast Asian region. The government must impose a tax on tobacco products to increase income, reduce the burden on health infrastructure and make it affordable for young people.

The current tax structure allows the tobacco industry to sell cheaper cigarettes. Considering the economic and health costs of tobacco consumption, an increase of four to five times the current tax rate is strongly recommended. However, to begin with, it is imperative that the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) increase excise taxes to meet the WHO-recommended threshold of 70 percent of the retail price of a pack of cigarettes.

The RBF should reduce the tobacco industry’s fiscal room for maneuver by gradually shifting to a single-tier tax system. These reforms will effectively reduce the affordability of tobacco and prevent millions of young people from being trapped in costly lifelong loyalty.

The low prices of tobacco products make them affordable for young people, and cigarette prices in Pakistan are among the lowest in the world. The average excise tax share of 45.4 percent of the retail price is well below the WHO recommendation that the excise tax should be at least 70 percent of the retail price.

Currently, the effective rate of excise tax on cigarettes is still the same as 5 years ago due to the lack of change in the federal excise tax and the increase in nominal income and inflation. Due to such an affordable price, around 1,200 children between the ages of 6 and 15 start smoking in Pakistan every day.

It is high time for policymakers to realize that the economic and health cost of tobacco consumption is higher than Pakistan’s total annual public health expenditure. Adopting the tobacco tax reform model will result in 219,000 fewer smokers; 3.8 percent reduction in smoking prevalence among adults; 6.4 percent reduction in smoking intensity among adults; and Rs. 19 billion additional total tax revenue.

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