With over 60 percent of Pakistanis being under 30 years of age, every day 1,200 children are getting addicted to smoking, just because cigarettes are handy and cheap enough for them to have. Initially youth start smoking in the company of their peers. Youngsters hide their smoking habits from their elders and many smokers attach it with machoism. Despite a ban on the sale of cigarettes on campus, they are readily available for university students as the cigarette makers have their own ways to do it, who give lavish donations for public welfare projects but their hidden agenda through such acts is the promotion of smoking.

Unfortunately, Pakistan is among the top 15 countries in the world with widespread tobacco consumption and higher rates of tobacco-related health issues.

According to 2019 estimates, 19.1 percent of the population, which includes 31.8 percent of men and 5.8 percent of women, consume tobacco in one form or the other. Among these tobacco consumers, 9.6 percent of the overall adult population (17.9 percent men, 1 percent women) are daily cigarette smokers. Whereas, 2.7 percent of the adult population (4.4 percent men, 1 percent women) smoke water pipes daily. Furthermore, 7.1 percent adults (10.5 percent men and 3.5 percent of women) use smokeless tobacco daily. Among the young population, 10.7 percent of all youth – including 6.6 percent girls and 13.3 percent boys – consume tobacco or tobacco products.

The tobacco industry is aggressively targeting youth, especially girls, via tobacco advertisements, products display, and sales.

A recent study conducted by HDF, PANAH, FFC and SPARC with the name of ‘Big Tobacco, Tiny Targets’ reveals how tobacco advertisements, products display and sales around primary and secondary schools by the tobacco industry has carefully chosen the youth, specifically girls as the target audience for their new tobacco campaign.

At a time when coronavirus pandemic has taken over the world, the tobacco industry in Pakistan and around the world is steering the masses to the false information and propagating confusion via social media, deemed as the biggest tool to spread fake news and blog posts.

According to the World Health Organization, tobacco consumption kills over eight million people around the world annually and has substantial economic costs as well. In a recent statement, the WHO termed tobacco as a known risk factor for many respiratory infections and that it increases the severity of respiratory diseases, as in the case of coronavirus. Studies found that smokers are more likely to develop severe disease with Covid-19, compared to non-smokers.

Besides health and social implications of tobacco use, Pakistan also continues to lose billions of revenue every year due to illicit tobacco trade, high-handedness of multinational companies and loopholes in the system. As the federal budget for 2020-2021 is just weeks away, the Pakistan Cigarette Manufacturers Association has submitted a plan to the FBR to generate up to Rs 260 billion revenue without increasing the consumption and rescue the struggling local industry. According to the association, the seven-year plan, based on a detailed study, will not only help steady increase in revenue, it will also provide a breathing space for the local tobacco companies whose competitiveness is eroding due to high-handedness of international brands, which may not survive if changes are not made in the existing system.

While several countries have banned tobacco products amid coronavirus outbreak, Pakistan’s tobacco industry and authorities are showing almost zero responsibility towards the cause. Ironically, as the budget for 2020-2021 is around the corner, Pakistan’s tobacco industry is once again striving to influence the opinions of policy makers to avoid higher taxes. Smoking giants are out to get benefits in the upcoming budget using different excuses, like prevalence of smuggled cigarettes in the country.

As the world marks ‘World No Tobacco Day’ on May 31, it has now become vital for the organisations associated with health, academia, education, youth development and human rights organizations to join hands to lobby against the tobacco industry which is ostentatiously targeting the youth of the country. There is a need for community mobilization against this health hazard. Enhancing cigarette prices will be helpful in curbing this menace by making cigarettes too costly for youth to afford it with their pocket money, and the extra revenues earned this way may be spent on raising awareness among the society. It is time to act as the clock is ticking.