At the time when the coronavirus pandemic has taken over the world, the tobacco industry in Pakistan and around the world is steering the masses to the false information. 

According to the World Health Organization, tobacco consumption kills over eight million people around the world annually and has substantial economic costs as well, considering all forms of tobacco use, including heated tobacco products such as vaporizers, harmful. 

“The World Health Organization has recently termed tobacco as a known risk factor for many respiratory infections and that it increases the severity of respiratory diseases, as in case of coronavirus. In April, a review of studies found that smokers are more likely to develop severe disease with COVID-19, compared to non-smokers,” said Malik Imran, the head of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), in a policy debate in Lahore on Tuesday.

“Despite all the warnings, the tobacco industry in Pakistan is striving to increase its production and propagating to once again get the maximum relation in taxes during pre-budget season.”

The WHO has warned researchers, scientists, and media about supporting unproven claims that tobacco or nicotine could reduce the risk of COVID-19, saying that there is insufficient information to confirm any link between tobacco or nicotine in the prevention or treatment of COVID-19.

Contrary to this, many blog posts are actively spreading false news since February, portraying the MNCs as assisting in the fight against coronavirus.

According to Dr Imran, who has done research on tobacco trade, while several countries have banned tobacco products amid corona outbreak, Pakistan’s tobacco industry and authorities are showing zero responsibility towards the cause. 

According to him, tobacco consumption is responsible for the loss of around 160,000 lives annually in the country.

Pakistan’s tobacco industry is once again striving to influence the opinions of policy makers in pre-budget period to avoid higher taxes at a time when the tobacco products should be banned.

In a media advertisement, the tobacco industry claimed that illicit trade of cigarettes, which it claims to be at 44% via a sponsored study, is causing Rs44 billion loss to national exchequer. 

Contrary to this, two research studies jointly conducted by Human Development foundation (HDF), Pakistan National Heart Association (PANAH) and Fikr-e-Fardan Organization (HDF) found out that the illicit trade of cigarettes was merely at 10-15%.

Being a signatory to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Pakistan should take measures to discourage smoking which is possible with an increase in taxes that will result in notable decrease in demand.

In contrast to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control guidelines, the State Bank of Pakistan’s report revealed that the production of cigarettes increased by 92% in the first quarter of the financial year 2018 which had decreased by a few percent in 2015 and 2016, and then further fell by 40% in 2017.

In an attempt to curb the hazards of tobacco, Ministry of National Health Services has suggested the State Bank of Pakistan to strictly enforce the tobacco control laws in all banks.

It is high time that we address the serious challenges posed by the tobacco industry amid coronavirus crisis and comply strictly with FCTC against giving any kind of tax incentives to MNCs to avoid illicit trading and find alternative ways.