A smoke-free Nepal

Dr Jaya Kumar Gurung

Dr Jaya Kumar Gurung

A smoke-free Nepal

The country can take a cue from New Zealand, which has implemented a tough law against smoking

New Zealand covers an area 83 percent larger than Nepal, but with only one-sixth of Nepal’s population. Thanks to its open market economy and multinational investment, the country located in the South Pacific Ocean is quite prosperous with a high standard of education and employment. The New Zealanders’ average life expectancy is 83 years, quite higher than Nepal’s 72 years. Recently, NZ gained global attention for introducing a groundbreaking law to ban smoking, which prohibits the sale and consumption of tobacco for individuals born after 2008. The policy came into effect in 2023 to achieve a smoke-free nation by 2025.

PM Jacinda Ardern has emphasized the importance of the law in supporting the national campaign toward a smoke-free future, with severe penalties for any violation. The law came after over a decade of tireless public health campaigning. The country now boasts the most expensive cigarettes in the world, with one of the best-selling brands costing 20-25 times more in Nepal. Thanks to this price surge, the number of smokers in NZ has plummeted with government data showing that the number of smokers, particularly adults, has halved. The government plans to gradually make the country smoke-free.

The law has had a notable impact on the tobacco industry in NZ, resulting in a decrease in tobacco trade. By the end of next year, 6,000 tobacco sellers are expected to surrender their licenses. The government plans to substitute the tobacco industry and trade with other industries.

In NZ, violators of this law will be fined NZ$150,000 (around Rs12m) each. According to anti-smoking activists, tobacco was first introduced to indigenous Maori and Pacific island communities by European traders in the late 1700s. Prevalence of smoking-related diseases is higher among these groups. The government has launched a special quit smoking program targeting these groups. The critics of laws against smoking ban argue that the law could promote a black market, leading to increased smuggling. They point out that tobacco dealers will lose jobs. However, the government has pledged to pay attention to potential black marketers and smugglers, offering options for those likely to lose jobs. NZ is not the first country to introduce such restrictions. Such rules have proven effective in Brazil, Norway, Uganda and Bhutan also. Anti-smoking rules and guidelines introduced a decade ago are as stringent as in other countries.

Through different policies, programs and laws, Nepal has tried to rein in the tobacco industry. Some of the initiatives are the Tobacco Products (Control and Regulation) Act 2011, Tobacco Products (Control and Regulation) Regulations 2012, Tobacco Products (Control and Regulation) Guidelines 2014, Tobacco Products (Control and Regulation) Strategic Plan 2014-2016, Multisectoral Action Plan for prevention and control of non-communicable diseases (2014-2020), and the Public Notice of the Ministry of Health regarding the sale and distribution of tobacco products in 2017. But the effective implementation of these initiatives is lacking. In particular, weak enforcement of the ban on smoking in public places, inadequate monitoring of sales and distribution, an ineffective inspection system, limited efforts to encourage people to give up tobacco products, and insufficient public awareness have resulted in a weak regulatory and control system for tobacco products.

This has long-term effects, especially on the youth.

While there are provisions for fines in Nepal’s regulations on the sale and distribution of tobacco products, the current system is outdated and ineffective. Section 17 (1) of the Tobacco Control Act 2011 states that a fine of Rs100 or removal from the public place can be imposed on anyone found smoking in a public place. This fine is quite low compared to NZ. Worse still, it is not being implemented. Political parties and government agencies at different levels, tasked with implementing provisions against smoking in public places, are not aware of the provisions.

Tobacco use is a political issue as it involves industry, taxation, and revenues. In Nepal, tobacco producers are treated like other industries and are even rewarded as taxpayers, which is against the law. The laws, including the Tobacco Control Act 2011, bar the manufacturers of tobacco products from conducting any activity under the CSR. But these companies are organizing sports tourneys. Tobacco use can be reduced by imposing higher taxes on tobacco producers. Currently, Nepal is listed among the countries that pay the lowest tax on tobacco products. The average tax in Nepal is 41 percent, while the World Health Organization has recommended at least 75 percent tax. Of late, the government has taken an ironic decision to revive the long-shut Janakpur Cigarette Factory. While NZ is discouraging the production, trade, and consumption of tobacco products, Nepal government’s decision to revive a cigarette factory and not increase taxes on tobacco products is surprising.

Nepal’s new political leadership has a tremendous opportunity to improve the health of Nepalis by implementing tobacco control laws, reducing health expenses, and boosting revenue by hiking taxes on tobacco products. By doing so, the country can achieve twin goals of improving public health and addressing the economic crisis, and work toward the realization of a long-cherished dream: a smoke-free Nepal.

The author is affiliated with Nepal Development Research Institute

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