An industries ministry's directive asking deputy commissioners and divisional commissioners across the country to cooperate with multinational tobacco companies in continuing their operations during the coronavirus crisis has sparked a debate.
Tobacco companies said that they have kept their operations running after ensuring necessary safety measures for workers as tobacco is an agricultural and essential product.
Meanwhile, anti-tobacco campaigners said tobacco increases the risk of coronavirus infection and demanded cancellation of the government directive and shutdown of factories.
People in their social media posts strongly criticised the government for allowing the operation of tobacco factories while most industries, including the readymade garment factories, remain closed.
Economists said the operation of tobacco factories can be continued because it is a big sector that keeps the government's revenue collection and contribution to the economy running.
The industries ministry's letter to deputy commissioners and divisional commissioners reads, "Request to continue operation (manufacturing, leaf purchase, finished goods supply and distribution) during nationwide Covid-19 crisis."
An official at the industries ministry said, "More than 3 crore people in the country use tobacco. Despite it being harmful, it is an essential product for them. In this consideration, we have allowed the continuation of their production. After all, the safety systems of companies are good."
With reference to the World Health Organisation, an alliance of 14 anti-tobacco organisations, including Progga, in a statement on Tuesday said smoking increases the risks of coronavirus infection and severe illness.
Taking the warning into consideration, South Africa has already imposed restrictions on the sale of cigarettes to tackle the coronavirus crisis. But, Bangladesh's industries ministry has issued a letter seeking cooperation for two multinational companies, they alleged.
The anti-tobacco organisations said 3.78 crore adults in Bangladesh use tobacco, and around 4.10 crore adults become victims of passive smoking. All the people who are affected directly or passively by tobacco are seriouly vulnerable to coronavirus infections.
Mahbubur Rahman Tahin, a member of the anti-tobacco alliance and an expert on tobacco, said, "The risk of coronavirus infection is 14 times higher for tobacco users. A number of countries, including Saudi Arabia, have stopped tobacco production amid the global coronavirus pandemic. Bangladesh should also shut the production of tobacco as it is not an essential product."
The National Agriculture Policy, 2018 was formed for the benefit of farmers and growers. In this policy, 13 categories of items, including tobacco, have been mentioned as agricultural products.
As a result, companies are mentioning tobacco as an essential product. According to the government directive, instructions for continuing the production of agricultural and essential products were in place from the beginning of the shutdown, said industry insiders.
Azizur Rahman, secretary to the country's biggest tobacco producer British American Tobacco Company, told The Business Standard, "There has been no proof so far of the increased risk of coronavirus infection through using tobacco. We had permission to run factories from the beginning of the shutdown in the country. The government has told us to continue production by maintaining all safety measures."
He further said, "Our factories are generally compliant. We are running our factories by giving priority to the safety issues following the coronavirus outbreak in the country. We ensure the travel of all company employees, including workers, by our own vehicles. Everybody uses PPE and maintains social distancing."
He said British Americal Tobacco itself produces hand sanitisers.
In the last fiscal year, the government received Tk22,688 crore in VAT and supplementary duty from the tobacco sector. Besides, the government has collected several thousand crores of taka in corporate tax and income tax.
Ahasan H Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Institute, said the production of big companies like multinational tobacco producers should be continued to keep the pace of the government's revenue collection.
He told The Business Standard, "The companies have limited workers as their factories are fully automated. They can continue working by maintaining social distancing. Instead of closing all the wheels of the economy, the operation of such factories can be continued. This is necessary for running the government."