An online debate on impacts of sugar drinks and tobacco usage suggested on Wednesday if the government implement federal cabinet decision on imposition of surcharge on sugary drinks and tobacco products, the government could generate additional Rs50 billion revenue which could be used to support health infrastructure to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.   

The virtual debate, by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child on “Imposition of surcharge on tobacco products for supporting health infrastructure to fight COVID-19 pandemic”, involved local anti-tobacco advocates, doctors and civil society activists.

Irfan Ahmed, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids-Pakistan head, drew the attention of Prime Minister Imran Khan towards a decision approved by the federal cabinet to implement a surcharge of Rs10 on tobacco products and Re1 on sugary drinks that remained pending to date. He said the country was facing a severe shortage of funds to combat the coronavirus pandemic. He suggested the government to impose surcharge on tobacco products and sugary drinks that could generate Rs50 billion. He added the generated fund could be used to buy personal protective equipment for health workers and testing kits required for the pandemic.

SPARC Chief Executive Sajjad Ahmed Cheema said last year the government announced a surcharge of Rs10 per pack of cigarettes and Re1 per 250ml of sugary drinks. However, the surcharge approved by the cabinet was not presented in the financial bill 2019-20 and therefore could not be implemented. He added if the surcharge was imposed on cigarettes, the government would generate about Rs40 billion per year in addition to the existing tax revenues and same is the case with sugary drinks.

Pakistan National Heart Association’s Sanaullah Ghumman said the government needed to adopt a futuristic approach and channelise the additional revenues into situations where financial setbacks are faced such as the current pandemic of coronavirus. This additional Rs40 to 50 billion would continue in lessening the financial crunch that the country is facing. He urged the government to consider implementing the surcharge on cigarettes and sugary drinks on an immediate basis to generate the much- needed revenue.

Dr Ziauddin, technical head of Tobacco Control Cell, added both cigarettes and carbonated drinks had poor nutritious value and the sales trends show growing habit of smoking among youngsters and high consumption of soft drinks. Not only higher prices discourage youth from initiating cigarette smoking but encourage current smokers to quit, who are nowadays at a higher risk to coronavirus due to their decreased immunity.

He said that efficient imposition of taxes on these can decrease people’s access as their consumption is injurious to health and is increasing health burden of the country.

According to health experts and advocates, the severe shortage of funds faced by Pakistan to combat the coronavirus could be overcome by imposing a surcharge on tobacco products.