Bangladesh has seen an unprecedented level of tobacco industry interference during the COVID-19 crisis. The tobacco industry in Bangladesh, dominated by two transnational tobacco companies, British American Tobacco Bangladesh (BATB) and Japan Tobacco International (JTI), has exploited the ongoing pandemic to protect its cigarette business. While publicly building their image by making donations during the pandemic, privately the two companies lobbied a government department to act on their behalf to ensure they can continue production during the lockdown. This resulted in two ministries arguing against each other and industry interference intensified in Bangladesh.
The first evidence of interference came to light when Bangladesh was only one week into the nationwide COVID-19 shutdown. On 2nd April 2020, BATB sent a letter to the Secretary of the Ministry of Industries (MoI) urging the Ministry to issue “an order and inform District Administration & Law Enforcement Authority to extend their support and help” to continue the company’s manufacturing, leaf purchase, finished goods supply and distribution. A similar letter from United Dhaka Tobacco Company Limited (UDTCL), owned by JTI, was also sent to the MoI on 4th April, 2020.
The letters from the two tobacco giants focused on their exaggerated contributions to the economy. For example, BATB’s letter claimed it is “the largest tax paying private sector company in the country” and that in the last financial year, it contributed “almost 10% of total internal revenue collection”. Similarly, JTI’s letter focused on how the company brought US$1.47 billion as direct foreign investment into the country when it acquired UDTCL in 2018. Both letters also referred to how they contributed towards employment.
The two companies hinged their requests on an old Bangladesh law, the Control of Essential Commodities Act 1956, which classifies cigarettes as “essential commodities”. This law was enacted in the 1950s when evidence on the harmfulness of tobacco was not yet known and is clearly outdated. Each year around 126,000 people die in Bangladesh due to tobacco-caused diseases.
The MoI was quick to facilitate the requests from the two companies. The MoI, identified as being particularly vulnerable to the tobacco industry’s interference in the Tobacco Industry Interference Index reports, forwarded the letters from BATB and JTI to all Divisional Commissioners and District Administrators (Deputy Commissioners) on 3rd April 2020 and 5th April 2020 respectively, advising the addressees to cooperate with the operation of these two tobacco companies during the COVID-19 shutdown.
The MoI instructions to officers in the field attracted widespread criticism. On 7th April 2020 through a joint statement, approximately 20 tobacco control organizations called for the withdrawal of the two letters, which they described as a “frustrating anti-public health move” and urged the government to “temporarily ban the sale of cigarettes” during the pandemic. The joint statement also cited the World Health Organization’s (WHO) statement that smokers are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and are at grave risk of serious illness once infected with the virus.
On 7th May 2020, frustrated by the inaction of the government, 100 eminent citizens of the country, in a joint statement, called for a temporary ban on the marketing and sale of all tobacco products during the COVID-19 pandemic to protect public health. The letter, addressed to the Prime Minister, was signed by renowned economists, development activists, former vice-chancellors of public universities, professors, former senior government officials, the former chief of the central bank, the former head of the revenue board, well known journalists and leading health professionals, and gained significant momentum. This prompted the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) to take bold action. On 18th May 2020, the Coordinator of the National Tobacco Control Cell (NTCC) under the MoHFW, issued a letter to the MoI requesting the withdrawal of the special permissions granted to BATB and JTI. More importantly, the letter called for a temporary ban on tobacco production and sale during the COVID-19 outbreak.
However, two days later, on 20th May 2020, the MoI turned down the request. The mounting pressure on the MoHFW forced the ministry to withdraw its own letter of request. According to a BBC Bangla report, the MoHFW decision was made at a virtual meeting attended by the Minister and the Secretary of MoI, high-level representatives from the Ministry of Commerce, the National Board of Revenue (NBR), and the Prime Minister’s Office. The reason cited for this decision was economic: tobacco generates revenue which the government needs, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The industry’s behavior in Bangladesh during the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how it maneuvers its lobbying to influence high level policy-making in Bangladesh. While it is not new for the tobacco industry to create divisions between the ministries, mostly between MoHFW and the Ministry of Finance, the NBR, and MoI, this interference is at a new level because the country is at its most vulnerable. It has laid bare the aggressiveness of the industry to make its profit at any cost.
The tobacco industry’s tactics during the COVID-19 pandemic also drive home the importance of implementing Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC in Bangladesh. A code of conduct for government officials when interacting with the tobacco industry, which is in a limbo, must be adopted. The Control of Essential Commodities Act 1956 must be amended in view of evidence on the harms caused by tobacco use. The to-do list for Bangladesh’s public health advocates grows longer each day and the future looks grim.
ABM Zubair is the Director of the Center for Research and Advocacy to Fight Tobacco (CRAFT) at PROGGA, Bangladesh