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Health minister’s ‘surrender’ surprises, tobacco control advocates

Zubair Qureshi

Sunday, July 26, 2015 – Islamabad—At a time the world is becoming increasingly conscious of the hazards of tobacco use and World Health Organization (WHO) is calling upon the governments worldwide to take tobacco control steps, Pakistan’s health minister’s surrender before tobacco lobby has surprised everyone. Saira Afzal Tarar Minister for National Health Services, in February this year had made headlines when she announced that the government as per its international obligations was going to increase size of the graphical health warnings (GHWs) on cigarette packs from existing 40pc to 85pc.

Later, the health ministry issued a notification too, giving two-month grace period to the cigarette companies to adapt new enlarged dreadful picture on cigarette packs. However, the influential tobacco industry was not ready to accept the decision. The powerful tobacco lobby exhausting all its resources and using various channels—the British High Commissioner in Islamabad, officials of the Pakistan Tobacco Board (PTB), Commerce Ministry, Finance Ministry and FBR— first succeeded in extending the time period for two more months i.e. From May 31 to July 31 and then on July 24, punctured the entire much-trumpeted and widely acclaimed resolve of the health ministry. On the said date, the tobacco industry’s representatives in a high-level meeting not only got extended the deadline for one more month i.e. from July 31 to Aug 31, they ‘convinced’ the well-intentioned health minister that the GHWs would only reduce the government revenues and lead to increase in smuggled cigarettes, a usual tactic of the industry against tobacco control measure worldwide. The health minister not only agreed to withdraw the notification but also accepted their demand to launch a survey whether GHWs would serve the desired purpose or not.

Talking to Pakistan Observer a number of parliamentarians and tobacco control advocates expressed their deep surprise and disappointment at what they called 180 degree U-turn by Mrs Saira Afzal Tarar. “I can still remember her speech in the National Assembly on March 26, 2015 in which she had said the health ministry was under tremendous pressure from tobacco lobby but at the same time she had assured the honourable Speaker and the members of the house that she would not budge an inch.

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