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Civil society organisations in Bangladesh are escalating their mission to prevent tobacco industry interference in public health policy. Despite making good progress in other areas of tobacco control, legal measures are not yet in place to stop tobacco lobbyists from influencing policymakers. Proponents of these preventative measures are making their case through research, advocacy and education nationwide.

Bangladesh is a Party to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control [WHO FCTC], and as such it is legally obliged to meet the requirements of the treaty’s Article 5.3, which stipulates how governments must protect public health policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry. In common with many of the treaty’s 180 Parties, Bangladesh has not made significant headway on this underpinning element of the WHO FCTC.

Suspecting that low-levels of awareness were in part responsible for Article 5.3’s low-priority status, Union grantee ‘Work for a Better Bangladesh’ [WBB] carried out a survey amongst members of tobacco control taskforces across 10 districts of the country. 59 percent of respondents displayed lack of knowledge about the requirements of Article 5.3. Bangladesh’s tobacco control taskforces are made up of local government representatives, medical professionals and magistrates, and are responsible for ensuring strong implementation of tobacco control laws.

‘Our survey showed that many of those actively working in tobacco control have limited or flawed knowledge of Article 5.3. This was quite a shock. Based on these findings we undertook an urgent, nationwide push for greater understanding of the issues, and to build commitment for getting this vital legislation in place,’ said Syed Mahbubul Alam, The Union’s technical advisor on tobacco control in Bangladesh. ‘We have made significant progress on key measures to reduce tobacco use in recent years, including graphic health warnings, advertising bans and smoke-free public places. It would be devastating to see these high-impact measures rendered ineffective through industry interference – but without adequate legal protection this is a distinct possibility.’

In response to the survey’s findings, WBB launched a nationwide programme to build knowledge, understanding and support for implementation of the Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC. WBB has worked with policymakers and government officials, as well as commissioners and officials from all seven of the country’s sub-national Divisions to advocate for introduction of Article 5.3. The organisation has also worked with tobacco control taskforces across the country to enhance knowledge in this area. And more than 150 civil society organisations as well as media representatives have also attended sessions on tobacco industry interference, and how to monitor and report tobacco industry tactics.

‘Governments must understand that they have to take a unique approach to the tobacco industry. They sell products that are highly addictive and kill one in two long-term users,’ said Alam. ‘If a government is committed to protecting and promoting the health of those it governs, it cannot also protect and promote the interests of the tobacco industry. The two are mutually exclusive.’

Article 5.3, along with increasing tobacco taxes, is one of the most vital and yet least well-implemented tobacco control measures globally; both require the understanding and commitment of multiple government departments, not just health ministries.

The Union has been supporting tobacco control in Bangladesh since 2007 as a priority country in the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use. Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of tobacco use in the world – more than 53 percent of adult men smoke daily, and 29 percent use smokeless tobacco daily.

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