The first annual Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index was released this month, ranking 33 countries on how well they have limited Big Tobacco’s influence over domestic anti-smoking policies. The results have raised red flags the world over.
Released by global advocacy group Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products (STOP), the index represents a vital shift away from conventional methods of ranking the effectiveness of anti-smoking measures. Instead of calculating, say, how many people have stopped smoking following a hike in tobacco taxes, the report assesses countries based on their ability to implement anti-tobacco campaigns without industry interference.
Pakistan, where close to one-third of men are tobacco users, fared poorly on the STOP index. While it wasn’t at the very bottom of the list, it was among the worst offenders with a score of 66 out of 100—and was singled out for having a “revolving door” through which senior government officials frequently pass to take lucrative private sector roles in the tobacco industry.
Broad tobacco control challenges
There can be little doubt that Pakistan has a major problem with tobacco control. Last year, Islamabad was pressured by tobacco giants Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco not to implement enlarged health warnings on cigarette packs. The industry campaign was a success: instead of facing warnings covering 85 percent of each pack, consumers in Pakistan will see warnings that cover barely half of their pack.
British American Tobacco has defended its role in Islamabad’s decision to water down tobacco controls. “Like many companies,” a spokesperson said in a statement, “we regularly consult a wide range of representatives in health… it’s important that any legitimate business should be able to engage with regulators.”
Even so, given more than 20 million Pakistani children currently use tobacco, and more than 100,000 people die annually from tobacco-related illnesses, that Big Tobacco insists on keeping its hand in domestic policy is nothing short of iniquitous. So, too, are its underhanded attempts to curb a domestic crackdown on the illicit cigarette trade.
Through its FCTC Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, the World Health Organisation has laid out a clear strategy for eliminating the scourge that is the global tobacco black market: the implementation of a comprehensive, industry-independent system for tracking and tracing tobacco products across their supply chains. As the WHO has repeatedly underlined, it’s absolutely essential that this system be completely separate from the tobacco industry which would seek to undermine it.
Flawed tender raises the spectre of industry influence
As a party to the WHO Protocol, Pakistan is bound to implement such an independent tracking system. The tender process, however, has been fraught with issues which call into question how effective Pakistan’s track-and-trace scheme will be. The tender was finally awarded to the National Radio and Telecommunication Corporation (NRTC)—after a procedure which was so decidedly dubious.
First of all, Islamabad took its sweet time actually getting around to the tender. The FBR was supposed to start the process months ago, but inside sources have claimed that the bureau’s officials were “deliberately using delaying tactics […] to please the tobacco firms”. As a result of the delay, Pakistan has already missed the IMF’s deadline to issue track-and-trace licenses for cigarettes by the end of September 2019. Now, Islamabad will be forced to seek IMF leeway on a $6 billion loan programme—for which a tobacco control scheme was a structural benchmark.
Even once the tender procedure was finally underway, problems kept popping up. Bafflingly, the technical and financial criteria were changed partway through the tendering process. Then, it came out that the winning bidder—the NRTC—had made a gross mistake in quoting the bid price. NRTC had intended to come in with a bid of Rs 731 per 1,000 stamps—but instead quoted an absurdly low bid of Rs 0.731 per 1,000 stamps.
The FBR’s own Licensing Committee was of the opinion that NRTC could not be allowed to modify its bid price after the fact, and that the tender might have to go to the next lowest bidder. In an “unprecedented and seemingly controversial move”, the FBR awarded the contract to NRTC anyway, at Rs 731 per 1,000 stamps.
To make matters worse, NRTC is alleged to have procurement connections with Big Tobacco’s ultimate Trojan horse, Inexto. With former tobacco company employees on its board, Inexto is a pseudo-independent company created to promote the notorious track-and-trace “solution” Codentify. Codentify is a technology developed and patented by major tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris and one which public health officials have warned isn’t fit for purpose. It’s no wonder the FCTC strenuously argued that Inexto is incompatible with its guidelines. By choosing NRTC, Pakistan is now effectively defaulting on its legal obligations with the World Health Organization.
It’s unclear how Pakistan could have engaged in such a sloppy tender procedure, though one Pakistani newspaper suggested that the FBR was in such a rush to belatedly comply with the IMF deadline that it cut corners, selecting a provider which by all accounts does not adhere to the FCTC’s requirement of industry independence. In the wake of this troubling tender, Pakistan’s policymakers must be wary of Big Tobacco forging even deeper inroads into public health policy. If they aren’t careful, Pakistan may end up the black sheep of next year’s Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius