World No Tobacco Day: Sri Lanka must strengthen its real performance

31 May 2019 09:47 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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A forest official inspecting a naturally grown tendu plot in Bejjur in Adilabad district in the last season
(Image Courtesy; The Hindu)

 

World No Tobacco Day falls today (May 31), with the global campaign converging to combat the harmful impacts of tobacco use and second-hand smoke. 


The focus this year falls specifically on ‘Tobacco and Lung Health’ in order to build awareness on the risks from cancer to chronic respiratory disease and the well-being of people. Once more, the campaign led by the World Health Organization (WHO) calls for effective policies to reduce tobacco consumption. 


Over the past decade Sri Lanka has taken great strides with respect to tobacco control, in particular pricing and positioning. 


Since 2015, cigarette packs in Sri Lanka carry graphic health warnings on multiple ill effects of smoking to deter consumers and youngsters from taking up the habit.

 


Aggressive stance 
The government also adopted an aggressive stance with regards to excise on cigarettes whereby the price of a stick now stands at Rs. 70 a stick, which was just Rs. 40 three years ago. Previously, as far back as 2006, Sri Lanka banned the sale of cigarettes to persons under 21 years, advertising or promotion of any form and a ban on smoking in enclosed public-places, taking an early lead in the global effort. 


Despite these progressive steps, smoking incidence in Sri Lanka still remains high.Whilst the country’s sole existing cigarette manufacturer reports declining volumes, several studies carried out over the past few years point to growing beedi and illicit cigarette markets thwarting the government’s efforts, as consumers switch to cheaper options. The government must take further action to strengthen its effort on controlling beedisand illicit cigarettes in the country if it is to effectively control smoking and enhance public health. 


When the government increased Cess tax on tendu leaves in the last budget, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera averred this would grow state earnings by Rs.2 billion, whilst the price of a beedi stick would go up by 50 cents. However, the price of a beedi still remains at Rs.5 in the market as opposed to Rs. 5.50, in an industry which is estimated to produce over 3.5 billion sticks annually yielding no revenue to government. Such nominal Cess increases on tendu leaf imports do little for state coffers.


Tendu leaf which is used to wrap beedi, is imported and smuggled from India illegally in large volumes, government officials admit.Following tax increases smuggling has intensified, but due to the vigilance of the Navy up to 3,000 kilogrammes of tendu were found dumped in the waters in the Gulf of Mannar in March this year, whilst a further 18,000 kilogrammes were confiscated over the past 8 months. This amply demonstrates the potential and value smugglers see in the beedi trade in Sri Lanka.


A little over ten years ago, beedis were smoked almost exclusively by blue-collar segments and primarily senior citizens who also smoked cigarettes as they were affordable. However, in today’s context more and more people including young adults are smoking beedi as cigarettes have become far too expensive, and it presents a readily available and extremely cheap alternate.


If the government is serious with its effort to control smoking related harm, it must focus far greater attention on controlling the beedi trade, which is purported to now have grown larger than Sri Lanka’s legitimate cigarette industry. It must be stressed that though beedis are largely viewed as a cottage industry, being a tobacco product beedi also causes the same degree and nature of harm as a cigarette, heaping additional stress on the country’s health sector and costs.


In addition to the large vacuum in controls on the beedi trade, governments also need to strengthen existing mechanisms to combat smuggling of cigarettes. Sri Lanka is a lucrative destination for smugglers of cigarettes – and even tendu leaf for manufacturing beedi – because of the high cost of legal cigarettes. It is imperative to ensure necessary safeguards are in place to protect consumers, government revenue, law and order, as smugglers are often found linked to funding terrorist elements. 

 


Illicit cigarette trade
The extent of the illicit cigarette trade in Sri Lanka was abundantly demonstrated by a study conducted by the Open University of Sri Lanka, which surmised that over 580 million illicit cigarette sticks make their way into our market, resulting in over Rs. 18 billion in losses to the state annually, which would amount to Rs. 100 billion in interest free development funding over a period of five years. Up to 25 percent of smokers surveyed during this study in various parts of the island had admitted to the smoking an illegal cigarette during a week. 


Beedi, legal and illicit cigarettes combined Sri Lankan smokers puff up to 8 billion sticks annually. However, with the regulated legal trade amounting to around 3.5 billion sticks, beedi and the illicit trade make up the remaining 4.5 billion and are barely regulated or monitored. That’s the equivalent of over 200 cigarettes smoked annually by every citizen, with no revenue to government, billions in losses, a burgeoning health bill and grave concerns on law and order. 


The legal cigarette industry, which is easy to target, monitor and regulate, shoulders the brunt of the controls envisaged by governments. However, these controls on legitimate businesses under the banner of public health are rendered impotent when lax restrictions over beedi and smuggling allow smokers to light upfor a lot cheaper. On the other hand, the wide range of limits imposed on the point of sale for cigarettes are not applied for the beedi trade, providing ample opportunities for under-aged smoking. 

 


Lot on their plates
Sri Lanka’s policymakers have a lot on their plates at present given the country’s security situation and elections which are coming closer and closer. Efforts to combat alcohol and tobacco abuse, or addiction, often serve as fodder on political platforms; painting conceited personal portraits of achievement when in reality very little has been made.


Effective policy must be all-encompassing and sustainable, and Sri Lanka’s tobacco controls are falling far below expectations with more than 50 percent of the market remaining unrestrained, allegedly also due to political pressure. What matters is people and progressive policy, not party, personalities or politics –how will our politicians fare?


(Patrick De Silva is an attorney-at-law and serves as a regulatory affairs consultant to leading agronomic institutions in Sri Lanka and Australia with over four decades of experience. He can be reached at patrick.desllva@gmail.com)

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