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Anti-Tobacco men for Industry Interference-free Tobacco Tax

Drugs 2022-02-05, 3:56pm



To safeguard public health, anti-tobacco leaders have raised demand for the adoption of tobacco tax and price measures that is free from industry interference. Each year before the formulation of national budget, tobacco industry employs a number of ill tactics to stave off any increase in tobacco taxes and prices. The industry also has a set of manipulative and over-used arguments at its disposal to confuse and mislead the policymakers and mass people: that taxes of cigarettes are already too high, that tax and price increase will lead to illicit trade, cause revenue loss for govt. and discourage FDI, that such increase will cause mass lay-offs in bidi industry, that tobacco industry is the highest tax-paying industry.  However, according to a 2021 World Health Organization report, Bangladesh ranks 107th among 165 countries on the basis of affordability of cigarettes (165th being the most affordable). Even the cheapest cigarette brand in neighboring India is more than twice as expensive when compared to that of Bangladesh. The lack of an effective taxation policy has kept the prices of cigarettes so low over the years. A 2019 World Bank report reveals that the percentage of illicit cigarette market in Bangladesh stands at merely 1.8 percent which is the lowest in 27 countries included in the report. So, the argument industry often promotes, correlating increase in tobacco taxes and spike in illicit trade is an attempt to create confusion among policymakers. Moreover, 96 percent of all revenues generated from cigarette industry comes not from company coffers, but from the pockets of consumers as indirect taxes. Therefore, cigarette companies claim to be the highest taxpayers is an invalid one.

On the other hand, bidi factory owners also magnify the size of their workforce to a great extent to extract benefits by using the specter of mass lay-offs before budget. A 2019 study of the National Board of Revenue (NBR) refutes such claims of bidi factory owners, revealing that the total number of full-time equivalent bidi workers (regular, irregular and contractual) stands at 46,916 which is only 0.074 percent of total labor force of Bangladesh (63.5 million). It was also informed in the webinar, organized by PROGGA, that to influence tax authority tobacco companies use MPs to issue DO letter on their behalf, use foreign diplomats to send letters to Finance Ministry, assign some paid and beneficiary economists to write columns in dailies against tax increase, conduct meticulously planned media campaign, stage nationwide protests by forcing bidi workers onto streets and use the cover of business associations to sit in meetings with the revenue board.

As tobacco claims 161,000 lives each year and causes disabilities in hundreds of thousands of people, leaders of anti-tobacco organizations urged policymakers not to succumb to industry's manipulative and invalid arguments and raised the demands for tax and price increase in national budget.

The webinar titled 'Tobacco Tax and Price Measures: Industry Ill Tactics and the Needful' was organized today (5 February 2022, Saturday) with support from Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids (CTFK). Md. Hasan Shahriar, Project Head of Tobacco Control in PROGGA, made the presentation. The panel of discussants includes Md. Mostafizur Rahman, Bangladesh Lead Policy Advisor, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK), Md. Shafiqul Islam, Bangladesh Country Advisor, Vital Strategies, Prof. Dr. Sohel Reza Chowdhury, Dept of Epidemiology and Research, National Heart Foundation of Bangladesh, Doulat Akter Mala, Special Correspondent, the Financial Express, Iqbal Masud, Director, Health and WASH sector, Dhaka Ahsania Mission, and ABM Zubair, Executive Director, PROGGA. The webinar was also attended by representatives from different anti-tobacco organizations.

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