Bangladesh Disqualifies Tobacco Companies from the President’s Award: A Welcome Step in the Right Direction

ABM Zubair

 The Ministry of Industries (MoInd) of Bangladesh has issued a new policy that prevents tobacco manufacturers and associated companies from receiving the prestigious President’s Award for Industrial Development.

The MoInd has recently been criticised by public health activists after it selected British American Tobacco Bangladesh (BATB), the largest manufacturer of tobacco products in Bangladesh, for the President’s Award for two consecutive years.

Bangladesh is one of the worst countries for tobacco industry interference. In 2019, Bangladesh was placed among the top three (03) countries for tobacco industry interference in the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index. The latest country index in 2020 identified the MoInd as one of the three ministries in Bangladesh that are particularly vulnerable to tobacco industry interference. The other two are the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Commerce.

In Bangladesh, BATB has long been a recipient of many prestigious accolades. Awards are often handed out by influential policymakers and government high officials at gala events and are highly publicized in the media. It should be noted that the government holds a 9.49% share in BATB, distributed under different government institutions and the position of the President of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. It has been alleged by anti-tobacco control organisations of Bangladesh that the multinational tobacco company is taking advantage of this government partnership and the awards-accolades to influence administration and policymaking with a view to weakening the implementation and formulation of tobacco control measures.

The company was selected for the President’s Award for Industrial Development under the large industry category in both 2018 and 2019. BATB’s Head of Legal and External Affairs received the 2018 Award from the Industries Minister. The President was also present (virtually) during the event. In 2019, the MoInd selected BATB for the National Productivity and Quality Excellence Award 2018 which was again presented to the company by the Industries Minister. In 2021, the Institute of Cost and Management Accountants of Bangladesh (ICMAB), an autonomous body under the Ministry of Commerce, awarded the ICMAB Best Corporate Award 2019 to BATB which was handed over to the company by the Commerce Minister.

The National Board of Revenue (NBR), the apex revenue authority under the Ministry of Finance, has found to be particularly enthusiastic in bestowing awards on tobacco companies. BATB, in 2021, has received the Top Taxpayer Award for a fourth consecutive year. Smokeless tobacco manufacturer Kaus Mia has been also a recipient of NBR’s tax awards since 2010-11.

Bangladesh has been pursuing a sustainable industrialization policy since 2016. The country also aspires to become tobacco-free by 2040 as declared by the Honorable Prime Minister in 2016. However, nominating tobacco companies for prestigious recognition always sends a contradictory message and implies that the government encourages tobacco companies’ line of business despite the huge havoc it causes on national health (126,000 lives lost a year), economy (BDT 30,560 crore equivalent to USD 3.6 billion on health care and loss of productivity) and environment (responsible for 31% of deforestation in Bangladesh). Bangladesh is also a party to World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).

The MoInd’s latest move during COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly a solid step in the right direction to realise Bangladesh’s vision of a tobacco-free future. Other vulnerable ministries, particularly the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Commerce, should follow suit. To safeguard tobacco control policies from interference from the industry, WHO FCTC Article 5.3 Guidelines (which aim to protect policy making from the vested interests of the tobacco industry) need to be fully implemented. In addition, it is necessary to amend existing tobacco control laws to prohibit tobacco companies’ CSR activities and the government’s investment in BATB must be divested without delay.

ABM Zubair is Executive Director of PROGGA, and the Director of the Center for Research and Advocacy to Fight Tobacco (CRAFT) in Bangladesh.

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