Bangladesh's tobacco industry interferes the most in the country's tobacco control policy and legislation among South Asian countries, according to a report.
The report of the Global Centre for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC) says Bangladesh has witnessed overall progress in protecting its health policy from interference of the tobacco industry but more needs to be done to build a tobacco-free nation by 2040.
The GGTC, a partner of the Stopping Tobacco Organisations and Products (STOP), surveyed 57 countries and released the report titled Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2020 on 17 November.
Even though Bangladesh's score improved by nine points on the index, reaching 68 out of 100, it is still higher than any other country in South Asia.
The country ranked 27th among 34. Its rank lies not only at the bottom in the region but also seventh from the bottom globally.
The report focuses on implementation progress of Article 5.3 of the 2008 World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
Among other things, Article 5.3 of the Convention requires a country to protect its public health policies with respect to tobacco control from commercial or other vested interests of the tobacco industry.
Six of the countries reviewed in the report are in South Asia. Lower score shows lower interference and better implementation of Article 5.3.
With a score of 43, Nepal topped the index in the region and ranked 11th globally. With just one point more than Nepal, Sri Lanka was placed in 2nd position in the region and ranked 12th globally.
The Maldives, Pakistan and India ranked third, fourth and fifth in the region, scoring 48, 50 and 61 respectively.
The index is based on seven indicators of tobacco industry interference.
How tobacco industry interferes in tobacco control, health policy in Bangladesh
The report says the Bangladesh government has not invited the tobacco industry or its representatives to sit in the government interagency/advisory group body that sets public health policy.
It says while the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare showed commitment in advancing tobacco control, the Ministry of Finance, especially the National Board of Revenue (NBR), have been utilised by the tobacco industry as its conduit to influence policy.
The Bangladesh Cigarette Manufacturers' Association (BCMA) wrote to the finance minister, opposing the proposed draft of the National Tobacco Control Policy 2019. Copies of the letter were also sent to high-level officials, including the secretary to the Finance Division, the secretary to the Health Services Division, the senior secretary to the Internal Resources Division, and the NBR chairman.
Following a request from the cigarette manufacturers' association at a meeting in October 2019, the NBR requested the health ministry to consider the industry's opinion before finalising the National Tobacco Control Policy 2019.
Also, incumbent or retired government officials getting involved in the tobacco industry gives rise to a conflict of interest, weakening tobacco control measures, the report says.
It highlights that the newly retired managing director of the Investment Corporation of Bangladesh Kazi Sanaul Hoq took up the position of Non-Executive Director of British American Tobacco Bangladesh.
Former NBR chairman Dr Muhammad Abdul Mazid told The Business Standard there is a perception that the tobacco industry yields the highest revenue for the government.
"Also, it is regulated particularly by one or two multinational companies that hire people who have an influence on the government administration. They pay very high salaries to these people," he said.
Explaining further, Dr Mazid said, "Particularly, the government also has two or three directors in these companies. That way, they influence the policy.
"This is because when the director of a company is a high government official, they normally do influence their other colleagues who affect the policies, such as public health or tobacco control in Bangladesh."
Though the influence is invisible and indirect, it is very serious, Mazid said.
"As a former NBR chairman, I do agree that even those who decide the NBR policy on tobacco control, such as tariff and tax policy, have an indirect influence there, too."
Mazid said the government should be strongly committed to resisting interference by the tobacco industry.
Industry CSR activities
The tobacco industry's corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities in most cases are wolves in sheep's clothing, the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index report notes.
It says in continuation of previous years, on 25 September last year, the British American Tobacco Bangladesh donated a hefty sum to the Bangladesh Labour Welfare Foundation fund under the Ministry of Labour and Employment. The ministry promoted the donation on its official Facebook page.
Tobacco-related CSR activities must be banned, the report suggests.
It highlights that the existing 10% export duty on unmanufactured tobacco was withdrawn in the budget for fiscal year 2018-19.
The NBR amended the VAT and Supplementary Duty Act 2012 and offered tax credit to tobacco companies from the 2018-19 budget.
Also, the revenue board reduced the supplementary duty on non-filter bidi from 35% to 30% by issuing a statutory regulatory order (SRO) to accommodate the demands raised by the bidi industry.
Lack of transparency
The lack of transparency in interactions with the tobacco industry is a problem faced by most countries, including Bangladesh, the report of the Global Centre for Good Governance in Tobacco Control notes.
It says in April and October last year, the NBR and the Bangladesh Cigarette Manufacturers Association conducted meetings and those details were not disclosed.
Progga, a Dhaka-based research organisation, covered the Bangladesh part in the report from January to December 2019.
The report says the tobacco industry strongly influences policymaking in Japan, Indonesia, and Zambia.
Conversely, Brunei Darussalam, France, and Uganda have emerged as countries with the least industry interference from the tobacco industry.