BENDSTAs claim that secondhand vaping is harmless is also refuted by mounting scientific evidences which report wheezing, bronchitic 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 contradicts with 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. The Article 5.3 of 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.
Strategy: Use of So-called International Experts
On 1 July 2022, a group of 17 so-called public health experts sent letters to the MoHFW which refereed to e-cigarettes as ‘safe alternatives’ and urged the government to withdraw its proposed ban on the electronic nicotine delivery system (ENDS) and to regulate ENDS instead of banning it. Signees belong to different TI front groups such as CoHEAR, GTNF, AHRA etc. A significant number of signees of these letters are associated with the Center of Excellence for the Acceleration of Harm Reduction (CoEHAR) of the University of Catania, Italy. The ‘experts’ as well as these organizations have multi-faceted links with PMI-funded FSFW.
Strategy: Sending Letters to Govt. Bodies
- BATB’s Letter to National Board of Revenue (NBR)
On 25 August 2022, BATB sent a letter addressed to the Large Taxpayer Unity (LTU) where the company deplored the initiative of tobacco control law amendment as 'impractical and unimplementable' and sought interference from NBR in this matter. BATB referred to some specific subsections of the proposed amendment, such as, elimination of Designated Smoking Areas (DSAs), banning so-called corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs of tobacco companies, banning the sale of loose sticks and also banning e-cigarettes and other vaping products, and claimed that such provisions would threaten the whole tobacco industry. The letter also claimed that the proposed amendment, if passed and enacted accordingly, may lead to a surge in counterfeit cigarettes in the market, and cause a loss of BDT 30,000 crore in government revenue.
- Validity of Claims Made by BATB
A 2019 study conducted by the American Cancer Society put the financial burden of tobacco use in FY 2017-18 at BDT 305.6 billion, much higher than the potential revenue loss claimed by BATB. Tobacco is the 4th contributing factor to deaths and disabilities in Bangladesh. Tobacco use claims 161,000 lives a year and in addition incapacitates hundreds of thousands of people.
Strategy: Using Non-Health Ministries/Govt. Bodies to Pressurize Health Ministry
In a letter addressed to the Secretary, Health Services Division, NBR expressed concern over the implementation aspect of the proposed amendment of the tobacco control law. In its letter, NBR claimed that the socio-economic context of Bangladesh will make it difficult to implement some of the proposed provisions included in the draft amendment related to the production, sale and use of tobacco products. NBR also claimed that implementing MoHFW’s proposed amendment may cause a spike in the influx of counterfeit tobacco products. It should be noted that BATB previously sent a letter to NBR expressing similar concerns and urging the latter to intervene on its behalf.
According to a World Bank report titled Confronting Illicit Tobacco Trade: A Global review of Country Experiences, published in February 2019, the percentage of illicit trade of tobacco in Bangladesh stands at merely 1.8 percent, the lowest in 27 countries. The report also states that illicit tobacco trade constitutes 17 percent of tobacco trade in our neighboring country India, 38 percent in Pakistan, 36 percent in Malaysia and the highest 50 percent in Latvia. The report also says that the illicit tobacco trade stands at US$ 4 million a year in Bangladesh, less than 4 percent of total tobacco revenue.
A 2021 WHO report also refutes NBR’s claim as it reveals that Bangladesh ranks 107th among 167 countries where cigarettes are sold at the cheapest price. In Southeast Asia, Bangladesh sells the 2nd cheapest cigarette brands, after Myanmar. As a result, the influx of illicit cigarettes from neighboring countries is a very unlikely scenario.
Strategy: Concerted 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 lines 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 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 on the driver 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 the authorities sit with us before formulating such laws. This is being bypassed."
Strategy: Using ‘loyalist’ economists and fake persona to publish articles and columns
In addition to dubious news reporting on mass media, there has been a proliferation of opinion pieces on the issue of tobacco control law amendment that reiterates the arguments raised by tobacco industry. The columnists often have vested interest in particular tobacco companies. In some cases, the pro-tobacco articles are published with names and vague identity. For example, on 17 October 2022, an article titled "Proposed Tobacco Control Act amendment ignores tax earnings, livelihoods" was published in the Daily Financial Express under the name Rashid Chowdhury. The article introduces the writer only as "an economic analyst" and provides no academic or professional affiliation or other specific information. A translation of the article was published on 2 November 2022 in the Daily Ittefaq which also does not divulge any information about the author's identity. It should be noted that publishing articles under vague identity is a tactic widely used in disinformation campaigns.