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Ignore tobacco industry’s ‘ridiculous’ arguments, campaigner Rob Cunningham tells Bangladesh government

Bangladesh that falls behind the international trend must ignore the “ridiculous” argument of the tobacco industries and implement pictorial health warnings in time to reduce smoking, a global tobacco control advocate says.

At least 80 countries have so far implemented pictorial health warnings in the world including neighbouring India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

Bangladesh only recently set the deadline of Mar 19 this year for mandatory display covering top 50 percent of the front and back sides of the packets.

But has evidence suggesting that tobacco industry is lobbying hard to delay the printing of graphical warnings on different pretexts.

“Picture warnings are very effective strategy to leave smoking and that’s why tobacco companies oppose them. If they would not work, tobacco companies would not fight so hard,” Rob Cunningham, Senior Policy Analyst of the Canadian Cancer Society, told on Friday.

Canada was the first country in the world that introduced pictorial health warnings in 2001. Cunningham, a lawyer by training, was involved in the process.

He said before the Canadian parliament made it mandatory, the tobacco companies were arguing that it was “technically impossible to print colour pictures in cigarette packages”.

“But when the parliament made it final, the impossible became possible. It was a ridiculous argument, and they made such kind of arguments in every country,” he said .

Cunningham is in Dhaka to speak at the two-day South Asian Speaker’s Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDCs). The summit will begin on Saturday with a special focus on tobacco control campaign.

Tobacco control is one of the 169 targets of the SDGs to prevent non-communicable diseases such as cancer and heart diseases.

He said the conference was “crucial” as parliaments have “important role” in tobacco control.

“They have the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that we have very good measures in tobacco control.”

Cunningham said pictorial health warning was an “inexpensive way” of controlling tobacco use and spreading health education to the people in low-middle income countries like Bangladesh.

“The beauty is that they reach every smoker and every day. They also have an impact on people who cannot read,” he said.

Citing examples of countries that have implemented pictorial warnings, he said: “Even a very small and poor country in Eastern Africa, Djibouti implemented picture warnings in 2009.”

“If all the countries can do it, Bangladesh can do it,” he said.

A new European Union directive will require all 28 member countries to implement picture warnings covering the top 65 percent of the packages, front and back, from May 20 this year.

“This is the same company (in Bangladesh), so they can do it,” he said, suggesting the government to ignore industry’s arguments.

The tobacco companies in Bangladesh, in violation of WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), have written to the health ministry to make changes in the provision.

A copy of the letter is available with

The law requires the companies to print the images on the upper part of the pack, which even tax stamp cannot cover.

But tobacco companies want to print the warning pictures in the lower part of the pack where they attract less attention.

They made their argument through their lawyer Barrister Rokanuddin Mahmud that the tax stamp would cover the warning if it was printed on the upper part.

But Cunningham said in many countries where pictorial warning was printed on the upper part, the tax stamp was put on the side.

”It’s a simple solution. If you put it (tax stamp) on the sides, it’ll still break when you open the pack.”

He said Bangladesh had given companies more than a year to prepare for this image printing. “Now it’s time to implement. It’s very important that images come at the top so that they become very visible.”

He said Bangladesh had fallen behind the international trend, and “new 50 percent pictorial warning would be a great advance and would have tremendous impact”.

Singapore introduced pictorial warnings on tobacco products in 2004, and in a survey a few months later, they found that consumption had reduced by 28 percent.

Estimates suggest that 57,000 people die of tobacco-related illnesses every year, and that nearly 300,000 suffer from related disabilities in Bangladesh – a country where nearly 45 percent of the population aged 15 and above consume tobacco in some form.

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