World No Tobacco Day 2021 - Let us commit to QUIT SMOKING
- According to the National Authority and Tobacco Act (NATA), cigarettes should not be sold to anyone below the age of 21
- Mr. Samarasekera drew the attention to the profit statistics maintained by the Ceylon Tobacco Company (CTC) which showed that their profits have skyrocketed
- The Ministry of Finance has not been able to design a system to retain the profits
“If an individual who is addicted to smoking contracts Covid- 19, such a person is at a greater risk of suffering the associated health risks,” warned medical experts at a recent discussion organised to mark the ‘World No Tobacco Day’.
The Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC) had organised the awareness programme and a panel discussion via Zoom to observe the World No Tobacco Day fell on May 31. Revolved around the World Health Organization’s (WHO) slogan for this year ‘Commit to Quit Smoking’, the discussion transpired the consequences and correlation between smoking and the Covid-19 related health issues.
Experts who spoke at the discussion stressed that smoking is directly related to the pandemic occurring worldwide with studies showing that if an individual who is addicted to smoking contracts Covid- 19, he is at a greater risk of suffering the associated health risks.
Following this year’s theme and the implications of the pandemic, the experts stated that it is important to work towards the objective of getting ‘Quitters to be Winners’.
Covid -19 and Smoking
Dr. Mahesh Rajasooriya, Specialist Psychiatrist, Senior Lecturer Colombo University, Chairman ADIC, initiated the discussion by explaining the risks of smoking and its other implications in this new era in which the world is also tackling the COVID- 19 pandemic. He stated that the influence of smoking and alcohol would relate to different types of health implications resulting in a higher risk of death in the event of the affected individual contracting the Coronavirus. This is because smoking reduces the body’s immunity levels, making the body more vulnerable to various kinds of illnesses including viruses.The relationship between COVID and the effect of smoking is, that together, they weaken the lungs and cause the individual to experience breathing difficulties along with the knock on effects the virus and smoking have on the body. Thus, it leads to many health complications which take the lives of many in the ever-growing community of smokers.
According to the WHO
- Quitting will help your lungs and heart to work better from the moment you stop.
- Within 20 minutes of quitting, there is an elevation in the heart rate and blood pressure drops.
- After 12 hours, the carbon monoxide level in the bloodstream drops to normal.
- Within 2-12 weeks, circulation improves and lung function increases.
- After 1-9 months, coughing and shortness of breath decrease.
Dr Rajasooriya also raised one of his main concerns with regard to the current situation in the country and how the general public relate to understanding the spread of the virus. Many medical professionals urged the authorities to initiate a lockdown in the country and to close down alcohol outlets,restaurants, and pubs. However, no such initiatives were taken with regard to the selling of cigarettes and the speaker emphasised a grave need to reduce smoking due to the fact that smokers are rendered more vulnerable to the virus.
The WHO regularly conducts the Global Youth Tobacco Survey and the Global Adult Tobacco survey, the results of which, according to Executive Director of the ADIC, Mr Pubudu Sumaranasekera, are promising and show that Sri Lanka comprises of only 23% of smokers (both young and old) with the remaining 77% of the population being non-smokers.
Taking these statistics into consideration, the main challenge currently at hand is to maintain these levels and work towards lowering the percentage of smokers even further. He further highlighted that, as shown in the graph below (Graph 2), production levels of cigarettes have been reduced drastically between 1988 and 2020.
Smoking and the Ceylon Tobacco Company
Mr. Samarasekera indicated that Sri Lanka makes a gross profit of Rs. 93 billion a year from tobacco sales. He also noted that the Government spends approximately Rs. 214 billion per year on health and economic issues of people who suffer from various diseases due to heavy smoking.
He drew the attention to the profit statistics maintained by the Ceylon Tobacco Company (CTC) which showed that their profits have skyrocketed despite the production levels being very low. His view is that this contradicting data is the result of the country’s lack of a proper system to calculate the tax imposed on tobacco products. Due to the flaws of the existing methodology, the country is at a loss because of the inability to retain the large profits. This is because 90% of the company is owned by the British American Tobacco Company and a few other foreign companies.
Although Sri Lanka should be able to retain the tax earned by the sales of tobacco in the country, the Ministry of Finance has not been able to design a system to retain the profits. With the graph below, Mr Samarasinghe depicted the comparison of production and profit levels, further emphasising the obvious disparity which has not been efficiently tackled by the Ministry of Finance.
A myth that has been consistent through our country’s history is that no matter which political party comes into power and forms the government, the main source of income used to run the country and relevant functions stems from income earned through cigarette and alcohol sales. The graph below shows that this is a flawed opinion as it is clear that national revenue from the sale of cigarettes and alcohol only comprise 11% of the total income combine, with the other 89% being comprised of revenue earned from other taxes.
Studies have also portrayed how the Ceylon Tobacco Company has allegedly publicised incorrect and misleading information about nicotine stating that it is good for the health. Evidence also shows that this has occurred in the past where the CTC has been paying organisations to give publicity for nicotine.
Dr. Rajasooriya noted that although the Psychiatrics Learning Guide has not mentioned any information on smoking and its consequences, the consumption of cigarettes is reducing not due to awareness of its negative implications but due to their high price.
Can we do it?
The final speaker Dr. Jayamal de Silva, Senior Lecturer University of Sri Jayawardenepura and Consultant Psychiatrist stressed the relationship between smoking and Covid- 19, elaborating on how a person who is addicted to smoking will need a cigarette every two hours. There are currently many types of medication available to help people to stop smoking but research has shown that most people give up smoking not by taking medicine or counselling, but by their own interest and discretion. Dr. de Silva also said a special environment can be created for a person to help them to quit smoking/chewing betel through the imposition of laws and regulations such as prohibiting smoking in public and spitting in public places.
How the Government can help quit smoking
Dr. Sanjeewa Ranaweera, Member of the Expert Committee of the Sri Lanka Medical Association on Alcohol and Illicit Drugs spoke on the policy decisions a country can take to help people to quit smoking. These are:
- To ban advertising and promotions
- Effective taxation standards
- Implementing smoke-free places
- Empowerment of communities
- and individuals
- Outer Pack warnings
Banning of selling single sticks. This was an issue discussed in the Cabinet as well of which nothing has come into effect yet
Dr. Ranaweera also stressed on the point that the Government should increase taxes on cigarettes so that the usage of cigarettes will reduce leading to an increase in the government revenue. This will also significantly reduce the number of deaths and tobacco- related illnesses, providing a further incentive for cigarette users to quit smoking.
NATA – and our responsibilities
According to the National Authority and Tobacco Act (NATA), cigarettes should not be sold to anyone below the age of 21 but it is a well-known fact that school children are able to purchase cigarettes from various sources such as small shops. The Act clearly states that cigarettes can only be sold to those of the legal age where it is the seller’s responsibility to check the age of all individuals trying to purchase a cigarette. Sadly,although the law is very clear, the exact mechanism which should operate at the grass route level is not well refined.It is the responsibility of educational and local authorities to be more vigilant about the suppliers of cigarettes to underaged citizens such as the petty shops near schools and prevent the younger members of the society from becoming addicted.