A study examining tobacco industry (TI) interference in the formulation and implementation of graphic health warnings (GHWs) was recently (24 April) published in the international peer-reviewed journal Tobacco Control of the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) group. The study, titled, “Tobacco industry interference to undermine the development and implementation of graphic health warnings in Bangladesh” identified a wide range of strategies the TI employed following the 2013 amendment of the tobacco control law that made GHWs obligatory on the upper 50% of both sides of all tobacco packs. The paper was co-authored by Professor Anna B Gilmore, Director of the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath; Dr. Britta K. Matthes, Research Associate in the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath; and four tobacco control advocates from PROGGA (Knowledge for Progress), a Bangladesh-based anti-tobacco research and advocacy organization: ABM Zubair, Executive Director of PROGGA, Md Hasan Shahriar, Head of Programs, Md Shahedul Alam, Head of Advocacy, Md Mehedi Hasan, Media Manger of Tobacco Control Program.
The driving factor behind industry interference in GHWs, as the study finds, was the intention to delay the implementation by prolonging transition period and to weaken GHWs by shifting them from the upper 50% of tobacco packs to the less effective lower 50% area. The Bangladesh Cigarette Manufacturers’ Association (BCMA) was found to be the most active industry actor interfering in the process. Among the tobacco companies, British American Tobacco Bangladesh (BATB) was most active and the only company that acted alone to thwart GHW implementation. Through high-level access to and close communication with key government agencies, the industry managed to insert the government’s apex revenue body in the process and put pressure on the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), the lead ministry of the legislation.
The draft guidelines, first published on 30 October 2013, gave tobacco companies six months to start printing GHWs on the upper 50% of both sides of all tobacco packs. However, through continuous interference, the industry managed to delay the process by around two years. GHWs came into force no sooner than 19 March 2016 and were printed in the lower 50% of tobacco packs, as the industry intended.
The study highlights the importance of continuous TI monitoring to identify and counter its moves to undermine public health measures. It also urges the government of Bangladesh to adopt WHO FCTC Article 5.3 Guidelines and to make their implementation a policy priority.
The study was published at a time when Bangladesh is in the process of amending its tobacco control law, Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) (Amendment) Act 2013. The draft amendment, which, among other issues, proposes to increase GHWs to 90% of tobacco packs, has already become a target of major TI interference. One of the authors of the study, ABM Zubair, Executive Director, PROGGA, urges the government to take notes of the findings and remain alert to TI interference to thwart the process, “The government must learn from the experience of introducing GHWs for the first time in Bangladesh following the 2013 Amendment. Similar types of industry arguments and interferences are being used to thwart the current amendment process. Our policymakers need to prioritize public health above all and should not allow themselves to get misled by tobacco industry’s ill tactics.”
The study is based on media articles published between 1 March 2013 and 31 November 2017, and 11 industry, government, and court documents available in the public domain. The paper can be found here: https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/early/2023/04/24/tc-2022-057538