By Kalani Kumarasinghe
Campaigners against tobacco use alleged that measures to licence the import of foreign cigarettes were expedited, during the same week declared as the National Drug Prevention week.
The Sri Lanka Medical Association’s (SLMA) Expert Committee on Tobacco Control yesterday condemned moves by the Finance Ministry to licence the import of foreign cigarettes to Sri Lanka, criticising the government’s duplicity in controlling tobacco use.
At a joint media briefing with the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC), a collective of campaigners denounced the government’s actions, stating that granting such a license would be detrimental to public health. Consultant to the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol Dr. Sajeeva Ranaweera said that the SLMA strongly opposes the move. “Measures are underway to grant licences to import cigarettes from China. The Finance Ministry states that this is an attempt to curb the illicit cigarette trade, catering to the small population of an estimated 6,000 Chinese workers in the country” he said, adding that public health would be in grave danger if such a license is granted.
ADIC Executive Director Pubudu Sumanasekara said that while two applications have been filed seeking licenses to import foreign cigarettes, the Finance Ministry has already issued a letter to the Excise Department requesting the necessary permits for one applicant. “We believe the process has now been expedited within a matter of weeks. Not only do we have an issue with the procedure that has been followed when making this decision, but also the contradictory statements of the government,” he said. Sumanasekara added that Chinese workers were made scapegoats to justify the process. The professionals warned that granting such a license would set a dangerous precedent, in terms of entertaining requests of expatriate communities.
They charged that licensing foreign cigarette imports would only increase the burden for the government. “The World Health Organization and the United Nations Development Programme in 2017 calculated the direct and indirect cost of alcohol and tobacco for Sri Lanka which amounted to a staggering Rs. 200 billion. Meanwhile statistical data also show that tobacco consumption causes some 20,000 deaths each year,” he said, questioning the rationale of importing foreign cigarettes.
Meanwhile Senior Lecturer of the Rajarata University Dr. Manoj Fernando criticised the government’s actions, stating that this would reverse years of progress made through drug prevention campaigns. “I believe the permission to import cigarettes was obtained through the last budget by the Finance Ministry. Not even the President of the country has been able to remedy this situation. The President has clearly expressed his opposition to this move,” he said, adding that this attempt threatens to reduce and reverse historic achievements made in prevention of tobacco consumption.
Granting such a license would be detrimental to public health