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Cigarette manufacturers 'to face big tax burden' A "sizably big" tax burden will be imposed on cigarette manufacturers in the forthcoming budget, a representative of the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) told a multi-stakeholder gathering participating in a national consultation on tobacco control here on Tuesday. Moreover, the WHO chief has rejected the idea of having designated smoking areas and has called for replacement of text health warnings on cigarette packs with graphic representations of the ill-effects of smoking on human health. Secretary Budget-FBR Asif Abbas asserted that the decision to increase taxes on cigarette manufacturers has already been taken, but the exact figure will remain confidential till announcement of the federal budget. "Right now, I can only say that the burden of taxes will be sizably big. It will be an extra burden running into billions of rupees," he added. Asif said the minimum prices of cigarettes would be raised. Current revenue earned from the tobacco industry each year is the range of Rs30 billion. Organised by the Tobacco Control Cell of the Ministry of Health, the two-day consultation, which will continue today (Wednesday), amply demonstrated that tobacco control is not a priority of the government. Not a single official from the Ministry of Health made it to the event, except for Technical Advisory Group on Tobacco Control Chairman Oriya Jan Maqbool, who made an entry at the tail end of the programme to propose an interaction with leading playwrights to sensitise them against indirect promotion of tobacco on dramas and plays. The proceedings featured presentations by Director General-Implementation of the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) Shaheen Masud, WHO Representative Dr. Khalif Bile Mohamud, and chairperson of the recently-constituted Task Force for Tobacco Control at PIMS Dr. Anjum Khawar, who focused on the impact of tobacco on health. Her presentation included an interesting video clip portraying the unhygienic conditions in which 'naswar' is manufactured. The availability of the perspective of FBR added novelty to the consultation. Asif told the gathering that FBR is "slowly but surely" working on several schemes including affixing of excise stamps and banderole on cigarette packs as currently practiced in Turkey, Malaysia and Bangladesh; mandatory printing of nicotine and tar contents on cigarette packs; and installation of CCTV cameras inside cigarette manufacturing factories to ensure the sale of taxed cigarettes only. "From such date as may be prescribed by FBR, no packet of cigarette shall be removed and sold by the manufacturer or any other person without affixing banderole and excise stamp in such style and manner as may be prescribed by the board," Asif said, adding "all expenses to be incurred on printing, making and affixing excise stamps and banderoles will be borne by the manufacturers or concerned persons." It is learnt that both the leading multinational tobacco manufacturing giants in Pakistan are not prepared to bear the entire burden of expenditure on excise stamping and banderole. With the FBR in an action mode, the tobacco industry will not wait now before it flexes its muscles to get the upcoming decisions aborted. Responding to a question, Asif said, "To the extent of legislation, FBR is totally in consonance with the FCTC; however, our strategy is to move bit by bit. The Ministry of Health should, on its part, keep pricking us for action," he light-heartedly remarked before sharing regulations governing the manufacturing of cigarettes in Pakistan. The FBR representative asserted that from such date as the board may specify, no cigarette shall be cleared from any factory unless it conforms to the health standards prescribed by the federal government and unless nicotine and tar contents are duly printed on each pack. He said, FBR is currently exploring various options on how to implement these plans without earning a bad name for the board. Dr. Bile rejected the creation of designated smoking areas, terming them "an infringement of the rights of non-smokers." He urged for a ban on sale of individual sticks and on advertisements of various tobacco brands, and appealed for switching over to pictorial health warnings on cigarette packs. "The warning should be legible to everyone - particularly to the poor and illiterate. "Taxation is one of the most important areas of action for tobacco control," he said. The WHO chief clarified that increase in the price of tobacco products will not lead to a decline in revenues; on the contrary, such a measure will increase revenue and reduce tobacco consumption as the product will be rendered beyond the reach of children and the under-privileged, who are the focus of the tobacco industry as new converts. Over 70 per cent of the cigarette brands in Pakistan are available at very low prices, and hence are easily accessible to the poor. "If the government decides on a five-fold increase in taxation, it will earn five times more profit because 80% of the people who smoke today and who may want to quit will not do so because you have a whole population tied to tobacco for decades, not to mention the addition of 1 million new smokers per year to the existing number for the next 40 years," Bile explained. Earlier, Shaheen Masud said the consultation has been organised to give an urgent call for action to all stakeholders on the eve of World No Tobacco Day. Even though the Tobacco Control Cell has formulated a 5-year strategic action plan for tobacco control, it cannot move ahead owing to a host of constraints, of which the most visible ones are lack of political commitment, delay in approval of the Rs34 million PC-1 for tobacco control, and paucity of human resource. Even though tobacco control fares nowhere on the government's priority list, the Tobacco Control Cell has made a meaningful beginning in a non-compliant and permissive environment thriving on the wily ways of the tobacco industry.