Tobacco industry is heavily interfering in the ongoing amendment process of the Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) (Amendment) Act, 2013, as initiated by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW). As of August 2022, tobacco companies have exploited a number of business associations, third-party allies, and mass media to propagate their arguments against proposals included in the draft amendment.
On 19 June 2022, the Health Services Division (HSD) of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) uploaded the preliminary draft of proposed amendments and asked for "specific opinion" sent to its e-mail address by 14 July 2022. The draft proposals were prepared by a committee of 18 members, chaired by the Additional Secretary (World Health) of MoHFW and represented by senior government officials from the National Tobacco Control Cell, the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs and also by members from a number of inter-governmental organizations, local and international anti-tobacco organizations.
The proposed amendments present scope for an extensive overhaul of the Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) Act, first adopted in 2005 and later amended in 2013. The major proposals included in the draft amendment are as follows:
- Identifies e-cigarettes or electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), heated tobacco products as tobacco products and Incorporates under the scope of the law.
- Bans use of all tobacco products (smoked, smokeless and ENDS) in public places and public transport and raises financial penalty involved to BDT 1000 from BDT 300.
- Bans promotion of tobacco at points of sale via display of packs or products.
- Ensures comprehensive ban of corporate social responsibility (CSR) of tobacco companies.
- Raises financial penalty for violation to BDT 500,000 from BDT 100,000.
- Declares mobile sellers or hawkers ineligible to sell tobacco and tobacco products and imposes a financial penalty of BDT 5000 for violation.
- Mandates license to sell tobacco and tobacco products and imposes a financial penalty of BDT 5000 for violation.
- Bans sale of tobacco and tobacco products within 100 meters of educational institutions, hospitals, clinics, playgrounds and children's parks.
- Bans production, import, export, storage, promotion and sale of ENDS and imposes imprisonment of 6 months or financial penalty of BDT 200,000 for violation.
- Bans bidis wrapped by any leaves and imposes a financial penalty of BDT 200,000 for violation.
- Bans use of added flavors with any tobacco products and imposes imprisonment of 6 months or financial penalty of BDT 500,000 for violation.
- Eliminates any scope for Designated Smoking Areas (DSAs) in selected public places and public transport.
- Raises areas allotted for Graphic Health Warning (GHW) to 90 percent from 50 percent.
- Bans sell of loose tobacco products and imposes a financial penalty of BDT 200,000 for violation.
Instances of Tobacco Industry Interferences on Amendment Issue
As of August 2022, a number of business associations, third-party allies, and mass media are found to be spreading tobacco industry’s arguments against the proposals included in the draft amendments. Evidence of tobacco companies or front groups directly engaging with policymakers and government officials on the issue of amendment is still absent in public domain. However, possibility of such engagement cannot be ruled out considering previous incidents of interference of tobacco industry during the 2013 amendment of tobacco control law, subsequent formulation of Rules in 2015, and drafting National Tobacco Control Policy in 2019.
- Bangladesh Electronic Nicotine Delivery System Traders Association
The first recorded instance (as available in public domain) of tobacco industry interference in the amendment process comes from Bangladesh Electronic Nicotine Delivery System Traders Association (BENDSTA), an association of major ENDS importers formed in 2020 with a view to promoting vaping as ‘safe alternative’ to traditional tobacco products and facilitating pro-vape regulations. On 4 July 2022, BENDSTA organized a press conference to voice its response to the draft amendment. BENDSTA particularly opposed the proposal as included in the draft amendment that bans production, import, export, market and sale of emerging tobacco products (ETPs) and presents list of demands.
BENDSTA, in its press brief, claimed that developing countries, such as the US, the UK and Canada, are increasingly choosing vaping as a smoking cessation tool. It also claimed that vaping is 95 percent less harmful than traditional cigarettes and secondhand smoke from vaping is completely safe. BENDSTA cited US-based Consumer Choice Centre (CCC) which estimated that introducing vaping may result in 6.2 million current smokers quitting and switching to vaping. BENDSTA referred to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and claimed that the country approved open-market sale of vape products considering its health benefits. The association referred to the involvement of non-government organizations in the drafting of the proposed amendments and also commented, “The Health Ministry is catering to everything these NGOs want.”
Apart from questioning the proposals included in the draft amendment, BENDSTA also raised demands:
- that vaping and ENDS products be removed from the scope of tobacco control law.
- that vaping products be considered as 'quitting tools' and brought under a separate policy or act.
- that the authorities consult with BENDSTA members before formulating any regulation related to such products.
Validity of Claims Presented by BENDSTA
While BENDSTA claimed that a number of developed and developing countries (UK, USA, New Zealand, Canada, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Philippines as mentioned in the press briefing) are benefitting from considering vaping as cessation tools, it presents a distorted picture of the reality. More and more youths in these countries are getting hooked to vaping posing a serious threat to public health. Globally, the vape market is seemingly more prone to spread among children and teenagers than among existing adult smokers.
A 2021 study by American Cancer Society, conducted among US adults between 2014 and 2018, says, "The largest absolute population increase in e-cigarette users between 2014 and 2018 was among younger-adult never smokers (0.49-1.35 million followed by near-term quitters among middle-aged (0.36-0.95 million), younger (0.23-0.57 million), and older (0.35-0.50 million) adults." One may consider the latter two increases almost negligible when compared to the increase among never-smokers. The study also concludes, “The continuous increase among younger-adult never smokers suggests a rise in primary nicotine initiation with e-cigarettes.” This means such products are creating newer and younger groups of nicotine-addicted population rather than helping people quit traditional tobacco products.
The situation is even worse considering prevalence of the use of emerging tobacco products among demographic below age 18. According to Pew Research Centre, in the US between 2017 and 2019, the shares of vapers among 12th graders jumped from 11 percent to 25 percent; among 10th graders, the numbers jumped from 8 percent to 20 percent and among 8th graders, from 4 percent to 9 percent.
Canadian Paediatric Society, in a 2021 statement, mentioned, “In 2019, 36% of adolescents aged 15 to 19 reported having tried vaping at some point, with 15% having vaped in the previous 30 days. This is nearly five times more than among adults aged 25 and older.”
The scenario also applies for New Zealand where a government survey reported a three-fold increase among youths aged 15 to 17 between 2018-19 and 2020-2021. The survey shows that vaping is more spreading among never-smokers than among smokers, as intended. The New Zealand Herald commented on the findings, "If only smokers took up vaping, we would expect to see increases in vaping to be offset by equivalent decreases in smoking. Instead, the growth in daily vaping exceeds the decline in daily smoking."
Another study finds that adolescents (12-15 y/o) whose first tobacco products are e-cigarettes, are four times more likely to initiate cigarette use in next two years, compared to non-users.
Considering the grave threat e-cigarettes and vaping pose to public health, a total of 32 countries have already banned ENDS. According to Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC), 36 countries strictly regulate nicotine and other contents in e-cigarettes and 73 countries allow selling e-cigarettes but under considerable sales restrictions.
BENDSTAs claim that secondhand vaping is harmless is also refuted by mounting scientific evidence which reports wheezing, bronchitis symptoms and shortness of breath caused by exposure to secondhand nicotine vape.
BENDSTA’s claims of vaping and ENDS products to be 95 percent less harmful also gravely contradict the scientific findings and consensus among scientific community. WHO in its Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic 2021, says, “Some of the nicotine and tobacco products fast emerging in different markets – including ENDS, heated tobacco products (HTPs) and nicotine pouches – pose serious health concerns.” As opposed to the claims made by vape traders’ body, the report also expresses concern that the use of such products may prevent people from quitting or lead to the use of traditional tobacco products, “the act of using ENNDS mimics the use of conventional cigarettes, which is a behavioral pattern that can prevent those trying to quit tobacco from doing so successfully – and it may even contribute to non-smokers (particularly children and adolescents) taking up the use of conventional cigarettes.”
Similar concern is also raised by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which reports that two-thirds of JUUL (a brand of e-cigarettes) users aged 15 – 24 do not know that JUUL always contains nicotine. Nicotine disrupts the natural growth of adolescent brain.
BENDSTA claimed, “Very recently the US FDA has approved open market sale of vaping considering its benefits.” This claim is far from truth. On the issue of E-Cigarettes, Vapes, and other Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS), the FDA's official website says, “To date, no e-cigarette has been approved as a cessation device or authorized to make a modified risk claim”. In 2017, the FDA launched its 'The Real Cost" campaign that prioritizes e-cigarette prevention among the youth.
Citing Consumer Choice Centre (CCC), BENDSTA claimed that introducing vaping may lead to 6.2 million current smokers quitting and switching to vaping and ENDS products. It should be noted that, CCC is a US-based lobby group that has received funding from all major tobacco companies (which are now also in ENDS businesses), i.e., Japan Tobacco International (JTI), Philip Morris International (PMI), British American Tobacco (BAT), and Altria. According to Tobacco Tactics, these companies do not disclose the nature of their involvement with CCC.
It should be noted that BENDSTA runs another platform namely Voice of Vapers Bangladesh (VoV Bangladesh) which is in official partnership with World Vapers’ Alliance (WVA). An investigation by the Daily Beast found that, “British American Tobacco has played a central and hands-on role in orchestrating, directing, and funding the World Vapers’ Alliance”. Such revelation puts BENDSTA’s anti-tobacco rhetoric into question.
BENDSTA demanded that e-cigarettes and vaping products not be identified as tobacco products and removed from the scope of tobacco control law. However, Bangladesh is, in fact, in line with the World Health Organization (WHO), in its approach to consider ENDS items as tobacco products. It should also be noted that, Bangladesh has signed and ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), a global public health treaty. Article 5.3 of the FCTC says, “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.” This renders BENDSTA or any such group ineligible to be involved in formulating vape-related or other such policies.
- Intellectual Property Association of Bangladesh (IPAB)
On 28 July 2022, IPAB organized an event titled "IPAB Dialogue on Policy Review and Its Impact (Tobacco and Linkage Sector)” at the Hotel Sheraton of the capital. IPAB's press briefing says, the government has earned BDT 40,000 crores as revenues from tobacco sector in the last financial year. Under this circumstance, it should be clarified whether the proposals brought by the Health Ministry are rational or implementable.
The event particularly criticized proposals which include elimination of DSAs, ban on CSR of tobacco companies, ban on sale of single sticks. The press briefing claims that the proposals would threaten the livelihoods of 6 to 7 million people directly or indirectly involved in tobacco industry, influx of local and foreign investment, increase number of counterfeit products, and cause harassment of the people at grassroot level during implementation. Speakers at the event demanded that authorities involved consult with representatives from tobacco industry as stakeholders in this regard.
- National Association of Small & Cottage Industries of Bangladesh (NASCIB)
NASCIB is a trade association formed in 1984 to "to highlight MSME (Micro, Small, Medium) and Cottage Industries issues and work for the development of the MSME sector of the country." NASCIB website claims that the organization is the apex body of apex trade organization of Micro, Small, Medium (MSME) and Cottage industrial entrepreneurs.
Following the publication of draft amendment on the website by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW), different district chapters of NASCIB organized a series of press conferences throughout the country protesting the proposals included in the draft amendment. As of 24 August 2022, such press conferences took place at least in the districts of Narsingdi, Rangpur, Bandarban, Munshiganj, Chuadanga, Kishoreganj, and Chattogram Metropolitan. Broadly, the concerns raised by NASCIB is mostly related to business interests of retailers and mobile sellers.
In press conferences held in Chattogram, Chuadanga and Kishoreganj, NASCIB chapters raised objections to seven specific proposals included in the draft amendment which are: A) mandating license for retailers, B) elimination of DSAs, C) ban on single stick sale, D) inclusion of tea stalls as public places, E) Ban on display of tobacco products at points-of-sale, G) Ban on mobile sale of tobacco products, and H) raising the financial penalties for violation. NASCIB leaders of different districts claimed that adoption of the proposals would result in the loss of livelihoods of 1.5 million small businessmen and retailers and such measure would affect lives of 8 million low-income people. The organization also claimed that proposals in the amendment would flood the market in counterfeit products and cause loss of revenues for the government.
Validity of the Arguments Presented by IPAB and NASCIB
The ‘concerns’ raised by both IPAB and NASCIB are related to alleged economic repercussions of tobacco control law amendment as proposed by the Ministry of Health. Both local and multinational tobacco companies and their associations as well as front groups have long been claiming that any raise in tobacco taxes, introduction of specific taxes or surcharges, packaging or other tobacco control measure would result in loss of livelihoods, loss in government revenues, fall in foreign direct investment, and influx of counterfeit products. (See: Tobacco Industry Arguments Against Tobacco Taxation).
IPAB claimed that proposals of the draft amendment would threaten livelihoods of 6-7 million people. NASCIB has put the loss of livelihoods at 1.5 million and number of people affected at 8 million. The numbers presented by these two bodies are not based on any scientific study or survey and possibly fabricated to strengthen their arguments against the draft amendments. Experiences with regard to price and tax measures on bidi show that the industry tends to highly magnify the size of workforce and people associated with it. For example, bidi industry at different times put the number of its workforce at 1.5 million, 2 million, and 2.5 million. However, in 2019, the National Board of Revenue (NBR) released a report titled ‘The Revenue and Employment Outcome of Biri Taxation in Bangladesh’ which refuted the claims made by pro bidi industry groups regarding the size of bidi industry workforce. As per the study, the total number of full-time equivalent workers, including those regular, irregular, and contractual, are only 46,916 worked in the 198 functional bidi factories on a regular basis.
IPAB claimed that tobacco industry contributed BDT 40,000 crores as revenues in government exchequer. However, according to American Cancer Society, tobacco-induced deaths and diseases alone cost the economy of Bangladesh around BDT 305.6 billion ($3.61 billion) a year, which was equivalent to 1.4 percent of its national GDP in the year 2017-18. The use of tobacco causes around 129,000 deaths in Bangladesh a year. Tobacco has been ranked as the fourth major contributing factors behind premature deaths in the country.
Both NASCIB and IPAB criticized proposal to ban single stick cigarettes at retail points. According to a 2021 WHO report, tobacco products in Bangladesh is the third cheapest in Southeast Asian region, only after Myanmar and Nepal. Sale of single sticks makes tobacco products even cheaper and affordable. It weakens tax measures imposed on tobacco products to reduce its affordability and also renders graphic health warnings virtually ineffective. The availability of single sticks or loose tobacco products creates ample opportunity to initiate tobacco use among the youths and reduces the urgency to quit. A total of 118 countries, including Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Maldives, Vietnam, and Pakistan have already banned sale of single sticks.
These two organizations have also raised objections against the proposal to introduce mandatory license to sell tobacco products. A number of countries have already introduced mandatory license to sell cigarettes and other tobacco products, which include India, US, UK, UAE, Turkey, China, Canada, Australia, Argentina. Finland, Hungary, France, Italy, and Spain. Besides, under the existing Tobacco Control Implementation Guidelines for Local Government Institutes of Bangladesh, licenses are required for the retail sale of tobacco products.
The proposals also include a ban on display of tobacco products at points of sale. Display of tobacco products decorated in a certain manner is proven to encourage people to initiate smoking or buy these products impulsively, studies conducted in New Zealand and Australia have found. According to a survey conducted among retail stores around schools of Dhaka, 75 percent of retailers display tobacco products and 30 percent of these retailers display these products directly at the eye level of the children. Another such study conducted in different areas near schools and playgrounds show that 64.19 percent of points-of-sale put tobacco products beside candy, chocolate and toys.
While there is no record of NASCIB interfering in tobacco control measures, IPAB has established itself as a third-party ally of a particular multinational tobacco company in Bangladesh due to its pro-tobacco stance and presence of tobacco company personnel in its leadership. (See: Tobacco Companies Exploiting Trade Bodies in Bangladesh). Mr. Md. Azizur Rahman FCS, the Head of Public Affairs & Company Secretary of BATB, has been holding the position of the Director General of Intellectual Property Association of Bangladesh (IPAB), according to 2017 and 2021 Annual Report of BATB. Ms. Mubina Asaf, the Head of Legal and External Affairs of BATB, is a member of Executive Committee of IPAB and holds the position of Treasurer. BATB itself is a Corporate Member of IPAB. As the executive committee of IPAB has representatives from four crucial ministries (Industries, Cultural Affairs, Trade and Home Affairs), it is of public interest to investigate whether this entity has become a conduit of tobacco industry's interference and influence in policy making.
Mass Media Campaign
Following the publication of the draft amendment on the website by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW), a number of questionable coverages of the amendment surfaced on the internet and mass media of Bangladesh. Some media outlets were also found to be widely circulating arguments presented by tobacco industry and its third-party allies.
For example, an article published in the Daily Bangladesh Pratidin on 28 July 2022 quoted unnamed ‘anti-smoking protestors’ and wrote, “In the absence of opportunity to smoke at designated smoking areas (DSAs) or in tea stalls, coffee houses, people may start smoking at home. This will increase the health risk faced by the women and children.” The following lines in the report borrows directly from the press briefings disseminated by NASCIB.
A news clip from Independent Television cited 'analysts' and expressed concern that such an amendment may spike the use of bidi, and negatively impact government's revenue earning and public health. It interviewed Executive Director of PRI (a well-known BATB associate), Head of External Affairs of BAT and Spokesperson of Bangladesh Cigarette Manufacturers Association (BCMA).
Events organized by pro-tobacco think tanks also received a widespread media coverage. A number of public relations agencies, currently in agreement with a multinational tobacco company, might have contributed to this widespread coverage. It should also be noted that, some widely-circulated dailies, including the Daily Star and Samakal are in partnership with Prerona Foundation, a front organization of British American Tobacco Bangladesh (BATB).
Even during the preparation of draft amendment, some media outlets have taken questionable stance on the issue. For example: one such article “NGOs in Control of Tobacco Law Amendment” was published in the Daily Jugantor on 11 November 2021. The article says, "The control of NGOs over tobacco control law amendment is increasing. Some NGOs have appeared in the driving seats in the process of drafting state policies. Relevant stakeholders are getting less priority." The report refers to allegation from unnamed stakeholders a number of times but did not disclose any identity of such stakeholders. Although it mentions that Article 5.3 of FCTC prevents countries from engaging with any group with vested commercial interests while preparing public health policies, it raises demands that the Health Ministry consult with Bangladesh Cigarette Manufacturers Association (BCMA), Bidi Federation and different chambers of commerce as stakeholders before formulating such policies. A similar report surfaced in the Daily Naya Diganta on 20 August 2022 which also reiterated the allegation that ‘relevant stakeholders’ had not been left out of the amendment procedure. However, BATB's Head of External Affairs was quoted in the report saying, "We have given our opinion with regard to the amendment of smoking and tobacco products usage (control) act. Cigarette Manufacturers Association of Bangladesh, Japan Tobacco, and Bangladesh Shop Owners Association have also given their opinion. We want that the authorities sit with us before formulating such laws. This is being bypassed."
 Paynter J, Edwards R, Schluter PJ, McDuff I. Point of sale tobacco displays and smoking among 14–15-year-olds in New Zealand: A cross-sectional study. Tobacco Control. 2009;18(4):268-74.
 Sale of Tobacco Products Banned within 100 meters of Educational Institutions, the Daily Naya Diganta, Dated: 20 August 2022, https://archive.ph/QaxMa