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PACK UP AND GO, MR. TOBACCO

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Much attention was focused on the new National Unity Government’s first revolutionary budget presented by Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake in Parliament yesterday and independent economists, while praising the substantial relief measures, are raising questions as to where the money would come from. 

The government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has pledged it would give the foremost priority to poverty alleviation in the aftermath of the shocking revelations last week that worldwide one per cent of the population comprising the rich and the ruling elite control as much as 99 per cent of the wealth. A report by the social justice movement  Oxfam warned that if urgent and effective measures were not taken to bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth, the world economy would collapse with devastating consequences. 

The situation in Sri Lanka is the same and we are happy that the new government – committed to good governance, democracy and social justice – yesterday announced substantial measures to reduce social inequalities. Health is wealth and the government while doubling the budgetary allocations for health services also announced tough measures to tackle fiery areas such as tobacco and smoking. 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tobacco-use killed 100 million people in the 20th century. If current trends continue, tobacco will kill one billion people in the 21st century. Tobacco kills nearly six million people a year and accounts for one in 10 deaths among adults. If current trends persist, tobacco will kill more than eight million people worldwide annually by 2030, with 80 per cent of these deaths in low and middle-income countries such as Sri Lanka. Shocking? Here is more. Almost a billion men in the world – including half of men in low and middle-income countries smoke. If effective action is not taken, 650 million smokers alive today will eventually die from tobacco-related diseases. Tobacco kills prematurely. On average, smokers lose 15 years of life, and up to half of all smokers will die of tobacco-related causes. It is predicted that if current trends of consuming tobacco continue, 250 million children and young people alive today will die from tobacco-related diseases. Secondhand smoke or passive smoking kills more than 600,000 people worldwide each year including 165,000 children.

On Wednesday, the new Cabinet of Ministers approved a proposal by Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne to revise Clause 34 of the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol Act. The amendment, to be presented as an urgent bill in Parliament, will make it compulsory for Tobacco companies to carry a pictorial warning covering 80 per cent of the pack, giving information on the serious health hazards that could arise from smoking. The Cabinet of Ministers also decided that the penality for companies which do not conform to these regulations would be increased to a fine of rupees 50,000 and one year in jail. The health warnings should be changed once in six months. 

The WHO in symbolic imagery has warned that smoking is a case of having a flame at one end and a fool at the other. For the past five years in Sri Lanka, the defeated Rajapaksa regime has been playing the fool with this blazing or inflammable issue. President Sirisena who was the Minister of Health from 2010 till his dramatic crossover on November 21 last year, has repeatedly spoken of how he fought hard for the 80 per cent pictorial warning on packets of cigarettes.

Mr. Sirisena claimed that apparently due to the influence and strong financial support from tobacco giants, former President Rajapaksa had told him that he should compromise and agree to a 60 per cent pictorial warning. The former President had allegedly said that if Mr. Sirisena did not agree to this, he would get it done through the Courts. So it was. Last year, the highest court ruled that a 60 per cent pictorial warning would be sufficient. That decision, many legal analysts believed, provided evidence of the politicisation of the judiciary and the disastrous consequences were seen this week in the disgraceful circus involving Chief Justice 44 Mohan Peiris. We hope that never again will powerful multinational giants be allowed to make thousands of Sri Lankans die prematurely. 
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