How to enrich our tobacco control policy

Wednesday, 28 March 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Lal Gunatunga

Sri Lanka has made great strides in controlling tobacco consumption in the country and it stands out as a leading example alongside countries such as Singapore and Australia, with graphic health warnings on packaging, public place smoking bans and tight controls with respect to underage sales – whereby no tobacco product can be purchased by anyone under 21 years. 

Notwithstanding questions and concerns over flagging revenues to Government, by 2017 cigarettes in Sri Lanka were priced the second most expensive in the world – proving an effective deterrent for youngsters to take up smoking and even adults. The nation’s efforts have been recognised and rewarded by global institutions such as the WHO, conferring awards of excellence on the incumbent Health Minister and his predecessor for their actions to prevent smoking. 

In this backdrop of tight controls with respect to price, promotion and purchase, attention was drawn to a recent briefing by local retailers who charged that the Government had drawn up measures to prohibit the sale of tobacco products within a 100-metre radius of schools, plus, a ban on sale of cigarette sticks in loose form. The retailers stated that the implementation of such proposals would severely impact revenues – as much 25% and more – as cigarette purchases complement further sales. 

In addition, they raised the question as to how these laws would impact the beedi industry, as they are only available in loose form with no packaging. Shop owners asserted that such ambiguities and doubts present a myriad of practical problems and urged the Government to either ban tobacco sales completely or leave adequate room for legitimate customers.

The retailers present an acceptable argument in all fairness. If the Government is allowing the production of cigarettes and beedi, and taxing them as a legally prevalent industry, then they must be accorded a legitimate space for sales and consumption. As alluded to by shopkeepers, the implementation of such laws will impact livelihoods at over 125,000 outlets island wide, and seriously inconvenience consumers of a legitimate product who make an informed decision to do so. There seems adequate grounds for questions and concerns over rights and privileges. 

That the unavailability of tobacco products close to schools will serve as a further deterrent for youngsters to take up smoking is a valid one. However, this proposal comes when the country has already put in place a ban on the sale of tobacco products to anyone under 21 years of age. According to the retailer’s association, every single one of its membership abides by this rule, which then brings into reasonable question the relevance of the proposed ban. They added that cigarette sticks in Sri Lanka are so expensive that consumers cannot afford to purchase more than three or four sticks a day. 

So, why not ban cigarette sales altogether? This is yet unconceivable as smokers cough up Rs. 120 billion in revenue to Government annually, plus, provide employment to thousands of Sri Lankans. In addition, prohibition is not the answer, as our country would without doubt then turn into a haven for smugglers as already evident.

Policing the beedi industry would prove even more difficult, as there are over 500 licensed manufacturers with no records or official estimates of distribution and its retail universe. Also, shop owners charged that regulating authorities often tend to turn a blind eye on the beedi industry despite being a tobacco product and challenged officials for greater transparency and fairness. 

In its essence, and from a point-of-view to reduce harm, these draft proposals are no doubt very attractive. But as underscored by the retailers, they provoke a number of concerns in terms of economic impacts, practical difficulties with ground-based yardsticks, consumer and industry rights. Thus, the Government will need to give these measures adequate thought on all fronts before it moves towards implementation. 

Sri Lanka remains proud of its achievements in the sphere of tobacco control, but we must be cautious not to tip the scale over the edge, whereby it becomes counterproductive. If we do so, problems such as illicit and smuggling will pose far greater threats than the ones we are already presented with. 

We must be measured with our actions and choose wisely. We must ensure that the representative values we have enshrined are safeguarded at every avenue. We must consider what is best for Sri Lanka and for the future that we envisage for our country and its industries. For instance, we cannot invite the world to come revel on our shores and not present them with the trappings to do so. 

Today’s world presents us with newer challenges, and some of these are changing contexts of traditional problems and opening up new fronts for engagement. Given the recent trends in Sri Lanka and in the rest of the world, some of us are ready to accept that legitimate alcohol and tobacco are a relatively minor menace in comparison to the destruction wielded by dangerous narcotics across all sections of society.

Whilst there is global recognition of this problem, action remains somewhat muted due to the force of the criminal elements and the lack of recognised institutions for head-on confrontation. The battle against narcotics calls for a far better coordinated and aggressive challenge; one that requires genuine courage.

(The writer is a retired 

superintendent of Government and private plantation organisations and counts over 40 years of experience in the Central and Southern Provinces, engaged in plantation administration and operations.)