13 January 2015

Towards a smoke-free tomorrow

It was a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka.  It was not exactly what the petitioners wanted, but even the ‘compromise’ contained in the determination to force the tobacco industry to have pictorial warnings about the possible ill-effects of smoking was a considerable victory.  

As has been the case in all parts of the world where people have lobbied against the smoking, the tobacco industry fought tooth and nail to trump its ‘detractors’.  This was to be expected.  Anyway, the anti-tobacco lobby has reason to celebrate.  They cannot rest, however. 

The tobacco industry argues (and they do have a point) that these moves will encourage smokers to pick cheaper and even more harmful tobacco products.  It is up to the relevant authorities then to allay such ‘good-hearted concerns of the tobacco industry’.  However, with respect to this particular judgment which came into force on January 1, 2015, there are still areas which need to be looked at. 

First and foremost, it must be recognized that the 50-60% agreement (i.e. the surface that should carry the warnings) is a compromise and therefore must be treated as an interim ‘solution’ not least of all because the tobacco industry will ‘err’ towards 50 and not 60.  Secondly, there’s the vexed issue of loose cigarettes.

Most smokers in Sri Lanka, especially those in lower income categories purchase loose cigarettes.  They just can’t afford to buy the ‘beautifully decorated’ packets.  So they miss out on the ‘beauty’.  They don’t get to see the warnings; there are no warnings on the cigarettes, after all. 

If any law or regulation has an objective and if this includes education of the consumer so that he/she makes informed choices, well then those who purchase loose cigarettes will remain uninformed.    Do the good-hearted people in the tobacco industry have a plan to educate these consumers of their products?  Are health authorities similarly concerned? 

It is estimated that 60-70% of all sales are from loose cigarettes.  That’s a big chunk and one which remains untouched by this particular determination.  It is perhaps time for Sri Lanka, like India, to consider banning the sale of loose cigarettes.  The Union Health Ministry of India has accepted a proposal to prohibit the sale of loose cigarettes.  An expert panel advising the Ministry has also recommended that fines for violating rules pertaining to pictorial warnings be upped.  India is serious.  Sadly, Sri Lanka is not.

The battle against the tobacco industry has only begun, it would seem.  Let the authorities get more serious.  Let them begin with imposing a ban on the sale of loose cigarettes.  Let us look to a smoke-free Sri Lanka, sooner rather than later. 



Rajith said...

A small victory but still a victory. When there was talk about adding these pictures in packets the first thing that came to my mind is the most buy loose cigarettes. I actually thought it would be around 80%, glad to see its around 60-70%.
Banning of selling loose cigarettes is a good idea but as the tobacco companies so kindly points out it could lead to people using other substances so have to thread carefully there too.