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DrMushtaq Ahmed

Philip Morris wants complete freedom to advertise cigarettes - Civil Society to protest against Phil

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A leading global cigarette manufacturer has declared the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination (MNHSRC) ‘illegal,’ and is pressing hard for grant of complete tobacco advertisement freedom in the country.

The development comes at a time when World No Tobacco Day 2014, which is observed on May 31 each year, is right around the corner. It is also strange that for such claims being made in total disregard of the historic 2006 decision of the Supreme Court in which it had ordered all executive authorities to implement all tobacco laws, which date back to 2002.

While the world is opting for new measures to curtail tobacco consumption, in Pakistan, Phillip Morris International (PMI) is lobbying for reversal of existing regulations governing tobacco advertisement.

According to sources at the ministry of NHSRC, PMI has filed a petition in the Sindh High Court, pleading that the said ministry has no right whatsoever to regulate tobacco advertising in the country or to impose any such restrictions on tobacco promotion.

The petition, which is aimed at reversal of the recent tobacco advertisement restrictions imposed by the Ministry of NHSRC through a statutory regulatory order that came into effect on May 31, 2014, terms them “irrational, unduly harsh and extremely unreasonable.”

PMI claims that it has the right to advertise freely so that it ‘may conduct its business.’ The petition states: “the impugned notification, which has the effect of imposing a blanket ban on advertisement being irrational and unduly harsh, is clearly tantamount to an extremely unreasonable restriction on the very right of the petitioners to conduct their lawful business.” PMI has thus demanded immediate relief in the form of reversing all regulations on tobacco advertisement, which includes ban on advertising in print and electronic media, branding on garments, and outdoor display of posters and billboards. The tobacco company has not only pleaded that these regulations would cause “extreme prejudice as well as irreparable loss to its business,” but has refused to recognise the very authority of the ministry that has passed the restrictions in the first instance.

Sources said, the government has recently published a series of advertisements aimed at informing retailers and cigarette manufacturers of their legal obligations to comply with the tobacco marketing restrictions. These regulations will come into effect on World No Tobacco Day to ensure that Pakistan has effective tobacco marketing restrictions in place and key priorities such as preserving the public health agenda are met.

Pakistan is a signatory to WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which in its Article 13 states that each signatory must undertake a ‘comprehensive ban of all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.’ If the government gives into the pressure and allows the roll-back of tobacco advertisement restrictions, not only would Pakistan be undermining an international treaty, but in the future, would also open a Pandora’s box, granting complete freedom for tobacco promotion.

When contacted, Dr. Javaid A Khan, chairman of the National Alliance for Tobacco Control said, “Pakistan cannot go against the FCTC as WHO and other international donor organisations would not cooperate with a government that allows tobacco industry to undermine and challenge the law, especially one which is in line with international trends and treaties which the country is a part of.” He, therefore, urged government, civil society and health professionals to take the matter to the Supreme Court to stop the tactics of the tobacco industry.

Dr. Javed further stated that comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship is the first step for tobacco control in any country. He urged the Supreme Court to take notice and ask Philip Morris whether for them, their investments are more important than the lives of Pakistani citizens. “We will protest if tobacco industry is given a free hand to promote tobacco in Pakistan,” said Dr. Javaid who, in 2006, had taken up the matter with the Supreme Court, seeking directions for strict implementation of 2002 laws and resultant regulations.

While globally there have been increasingly stringent restrictions, if not complete bans, on tobacco advertisement, companies in Pakistan are seeking judicial intervention so that they have an open canvas to pursue uninhibited marketing of cigarettes to the masses.

It is time that the civil society, consumer rights groups, public health champions and anti-tobacco activists take notice and curtail any possible retraction of the tobacco advertisement regulatory regime in the country. In fact, they should become a party to this petition and put forward the point of view of consumers while advocating for the public health agenda.

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