Government and tobacco control

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By 2017-04-17

By Umesh Moramudali

Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne is soon to present a Cabinet proposal to ban the sale of loose cigarettes with the objective of reducing tobacco consumption. According to

Dr. Senaratne the proposal is one among few initiatives of the government to reduce the adverse impacts of smoking. According to rough estimates nearly 20,000 deaths occur annually due to smoking in Sri Lanka. More often than not, smoking has an impact on disabilities and non-communicable diseases mainly oral and lung cancers.

In addition, research findings have revealed that smoking also increases the risk of death from communicable diseases as well.

The proposal to ban the sale of loose cigarettes was brought up by the Government Medical Officers' Association (GMOA) among few other proposals including the amending of the National Authority on Tobacco & Alcohol (NATA) Act in a bid to discourage cigarette consumption.

Will it reduce consumption?

People smoke for various reasons and more often than not it is considered an addiction. As a result, the response of cigarette consumption to a price change is not much significant.

Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC) Executive Director, Pubudu Sumanasekara noted that according to the research done in low and middle income families, the price of cigarettes is a major component that affects the buying behaviour hence the companies always try their best to keep tobacco prices according to purchasing power.

"Among smokers all over the world there is a trend to reduce consumption or quit the habit. However, when it comes to the case of purchasing a whole packet the consumer will be reluctant owing to the huge cost involved. And in countries such as Sri Lanka the majority of tobacco users purchase loose cigarettes since a large majority belong to the low income group", he said.

Sumanasekara added that the current proposal of banning the sale of loose cigarettes has two effects. Firstly those in the low income group will be discouraged owing to the cost involved and the other is that potential future smokers will have a re-think.

However, tobacco consumers think otherwise. One user who did not wish to be named said as a solution several persons will have to pool the money and purchase a packet of cigarettes. While admitting that he is addicted to smoking, he added that the habit helps him to relax, release stress and increase the level of concentration. Therefore the consumption of cigarettes is essential for him.

Another user is of the belief that if the ban of selling loose cigarettes is introduced then smaller packets will be made available at an affordable price.

"I assume that there will be packets containing six cigarettes which are affordable to me and my friends", he added
However, the General Secretary of the GMOA Dr. Naveen de Soysa insists that packets that contain only 20 cigarettes should be made available in the market and nothing less.

"A packet containing 20 cigarettes will cost more than Rs 1,000 which is difficult for an average person to afford. We also suggested issuing a licence to all outlets trading in tobacco products," he said.

No. 3 of Article 16 in the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) suggests that if countries put a total ban on the sale of tobacco products it will discourage minors. ADIC strongly believes that the suggested regulation will reduce a large number from consuming cigarettes and other tobacco products.

"I cannot afford Rs 1,000 for a cigarette packet,therefore I will have no option but to reduce," another user said.

Black market is possible

However, the ban on selling loose cigarette creates an opportunity for a black market. When the cigarettes are not available users will seek alternative ways to purchase cigarettes. However, ADIC as well as the GMOA is of the view that the government should have a strong mechanism to curtail such possibilities.

"When implementing these kinds of rules the industry generally brings forward arguments which are not scientifically proved. One potential argument is that it will increase the sale of illegal cigarettes and other cheap products such as beedi, etc.

However, the import and sale of illegal tobacco products should be controlled by the Customs authorities", Sumanasekera noted.

He added that the other argument is that the sale and consumption of local tobacco products such as beedi will increase. But according to scientific research this has never been the case, he said.

When the price of quality tobacco products increases, users then tend towards substitutes such as the beedi which is widely regarded as a ready substitute.

He stressed that even though the price of cigarettes had increased the consumption of beedi and other substitutes had not increased. There is no co-relation between cigarette prices and beedi consumption.

According to ADIC the local Beedi is manufactured with the Tendu leaf imported from India and although the price of cigarettes had increased, there has been no significant increase in the import of the Tendu leaf from India from the period between 1992 and 2015.

The government has been implementing many proposals aimed at reducing the consumption of cigarettes and other tobacco products and towards this end, heavy taxes were imposed on the industry.

ADIC noted, it requires minimum one year to see the impact following a price increase. According to the research in Taiwan, it found that such regulations brought in a favourable response. Male smokers who had no income and used light cigarettes were found to be more responsive to changes in the prices. Cigarettes which are labelled as Light, Mild or Low-Tar, are considered to have a lighter, less pronounced flavour than regular cigarettes. These cigarette brands may also contain lower levels of tar, nicotine, or other chemicals and help reduce smoking-related illnesses.

"Research in other countries confirmed that when the prices of tobacco products increase smokers use less of the dangerous brands or quit altogether. Article 6 of the FCTC also encourages the increases in prices of tobacco products.

Excise tax should be revised often enough to increase the price of tobacco products making them less affordable to users. FCTC findings further proved that owing to the increase in the prices of tobacco products there has been a decline in consumption.According to recent surveys conducted in July 2016 by ADIC, 70.5% of those interviewed were in favour for the raise in the price of tobacco products", opined Director Pubudu Sumanasekara.

Large tax revenue

The government claims its fight against the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes has brought in a substantial increase in revenue through taxes imposed on both industries.

Accordingly, in 2017, the excise duty revenue from tobacco products is expected to increase by Rs 15 billion. The government also expects to raise Rs 500 million from excise taxes imposed on liquor. In total, the government will raise Rs 280.5 billion through excise duty imposed on alcohol and tobacco which is approximately 15 per cent of the total tax revenue.

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