The decision to turn down the Islamabad Prohibition of Sheesha Smoking Bill 2016 by the Senate Standing Committee on National Health Services may or may not have been prompted by vested interests, but is a sensible decision nonetheless. A complete prohibition of all tobacco-related products would adversely affect local industry and would never be completely implementable, which would mean that foreign cigarette companies would continue to benefit while local producers would be driven out of the market, leading to a loss of thousands of jobs.

Banning things in the past has not helped; alcohol and drug sales are booming, pornography is still being viewed through proxy websites, and unlicensed arms and homemade illegal explosives continue to be used with startling frequency. The only thing a ban would do is to create a lucrative black market for tobacco related products. The stated objective of decreasing the use of harmful substances such as tobacco would actually be undermined if a blanket ban would be imposed. Awareness campaigns would cease to exist and the thriving illegal sale would usher in a new era of production without quality control, and other problems which could potentially lead to a greater health risk to users in the long run.

In any case, any such ban on an item like this goes against every notion of free choice. The government, in its paternal role, can educate the public about harmful effects of a substance such as tobacco, but in no way can it tell people to not use it provided they are consenting adults and have perfect information about all associated harms, and as long as they are harming no one else in the process. Using sheesha or smoking cigarettes in the privacy of one’s own home cannot be criminalised. Implementing the ban on the use of tobacco related products in enclosed public places and public transport would be effective, as has been witnessed around the world in developed countries such as the UK, Spain and Hungary. The implementation of pre-existing laws should take precedence over making new ones that stand to fulfil the same purpose – aiming to improve the health of the general public.

The topic of smoking tobacco is contentious internationally, and it is positive that lawmakers in Pakistan are also debating issues of public health. But it is a sad reality that the tobacco industry across the world often keeps close contacts with politicians and others in a position of power, to further its own agenda of keeping sales up for a substance that is unquestionably harmful. There is always a strong tobacco lobby in each country looking to counter measures of prohibition. But by the looks of it, with the government mulling increasing the size of images with harmful diseases and the negative effects of smoking on cigarette packs, the tobacco industry might not be as strong in Pakistan as it would want to be.