Tobacco CONTROL & REGULATION bill: A need for more pragmatic approach

KATHMANDU: Health Minister Umakant Chaudhary recently introduced the landmark, Tobacco Products (Control & Regulation) Bill 2066 for discussion in parliament with the aim of formulating a comprehensive law to control and regulate the tobacco industry in Nepal.

Nepal had signed the FCTC (Framework Convention for Tobacco Control) in December 3, 2003 and the same was ratified in parliament on November 7, 2007 as part of the bid to join the global campaign against tobacco use.

The bill is laudatory in the sense that it fulfills a long standing need of controlling & regulating the tobacco industry in Nepal. Most of the provisions of the bill like ban of smoking at Public places, complete ban on advertising, health warnings on pack, etc are extremely important in the context of limiting the fallouts of tobacco usage in the long term and making sure that less and less people fall prey to this habit.

In the interests of taking a balanced view of the issues at hand and ensuring that a pragmatic, practicable law is introduced, there is, however, a need to look at some of the clauses objectively while keeping the spirit and direction of the bill intact. Also in taking the bill and most importantly its implementation forward one needs to look at the experience of the relevant legislations in the region.

The said bill has a clause on banning the sale of cigarettes/bidis/cigars in loose form. This will have a two-pronged effect; there is no way that this provision can be implemented by the lawmakers across 1 Lakh retail outlets across the country. The second impact it will have is on the earnings of retailers since anyway 80 percent of the products are sold in loose form and the retail will find ways and means to continue that. A case in point would be the recently introduced law on separate spaces for liquor in retail which has been difficult to implement. What is the point of introducing clauses that are sure to be violated?

The second point relates to the ban on display and product presentation of tobacco products at the shop level. How else would the shopkeeper be able to convey to his customers of the availability of products in his outlet. Tobacco products are legally sold in the country and the adult tobacco consumer has the right to be informed about brands so that he may make the right choice for himself. In developed countries like the USA and UK which have very stringent laws on tobacco control, the legal system has protected the consumer's right to be informed about brands available at the stores. Even in neighbouring countries, which have over the last few years implemented very stringent laws, on and in site product presentation and communication is allowed albeit with strictly enforced warning messages. Once again, one has to question the ability of the government mechanism to ensure strict implementation of the same.

There are a few other clauses which require thought before implementation of the bill into law. The government does not have the requisite data collection and technical capacity to measure the nicotine and other contents of tobacco products. This, if implemented, would require serious processes and massive investments on the part of the government. If the government on the other hand relies on data provided by the industry, it will obviously be a self defeating exercise and once again a law which would not serve the purpose for which it has been made.

Similar is the case with warnings on packets and changing the same. The government needs to understand the practicability of these changes as anyone well versed with the packaging side of the business will point out that most of these packages require huge lead times to procure and change. One is leaving for the moment aside the huge investments it will require of tobacco companies thereby making them unviable.

Given the above factors and given the fact that the tobacco industry is one of the largest contributors to the national exchequer (estimated at about Rs 1000 Crore a year), a balanced and pragmatic view has to be taken while formulating laws. Where there is no doubt that there has to be a strong set of laws regulating the tobacco industry, it is also in the interests of the government and the public at large that the laws are practical and enforceable. It has also been seen that draconian laws often kill the local industry leading to huge underground and illegal trade which neither follows the laws of the land nor are the revenues accretive to the government.

There needs to be serious dialogue amongst the various stakeholders, both inside (Law, Finance, Health, Agriculture ministry's) the government and outside in the public sphere (the government, various NGO's/INGO's working in this field, the tobacco industry, retailers, tobacco farmers) to formulate a law which is beneficial to Nepal in the long run. The idea is obviously not to import any law from abroad but to promulgate laws that work for Nepal and the cause that it envisions.