There is a direct and irreconcilable conflict of interest between tobacco industry and public health policy. This conflict of interest is also enshrined in the preamble of the Article 5.3 of the global tobacco treaty (formally called WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control). The WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan had said at a recent meeting in Moscow: "Giving any tobacco company a place at the negotiation table [of global tobacco treaty] is akin to appointing a committee of foxes to take care of your chickens."
As implementation of domestic tobacco control laws and global tobacco treaty is advancing, tobacco industry is indeed facing the heat. Not surprising, that the industry has sued governments when they have attempted to implement life-saving tobacco control measures. Nepal is no exception. With more than 11 law suits filed by the industry and its allies against the Nepalese government's move to strictly enforce tobacco control laws, the Supreme Court decision favouring the government is a beacon of hope.
"Tobacco industry interference has been a huge challenge in Nepal's public health policy. Tobacco industry allies had filed more than 11 law suits in Supreme Court (one farmer organization had also filed a case) to sue Nepal on introduction of pictorial graphic health warnings. But Supreme Court verdict in favour of introduction of pictorial graphic health warnings on all tobacco products has given a new force to implementation of tobacco control laws. Supreme Court verdict was to implement the tobacco control laws effectively as our Nepal assembly has passed" said Badri Bahadur Khadka, Chief Health Education Administrator, at Ministry of Health and Population, Government of Nepal.
It is important to underline that domestic policy to safeguard public health policy from tobacco industry interference was drafted not just by Ministry of Health and Population but by more than 15 ministries in Nepal in a series of consultative drafting sessions. "Tobacco control is a multi-sectoral response so we need to effectively coordinate with other ministries also, such as: Ministries of Information and Communication, Agriculture, Education, Finance (both departments of customs and inland revenue), youth and sports, Home Affairs, Health and Population, among others. We need to frequently meet these ministries to effectively implement tobacco control law" emphasized Khadka.
"After approval of this draft domestic policy in line with WHO FCTC Article 5.3 by over 15 ministries we then submitted the final version to Ministry of Health and Population. It is in the process of approval and soon we will get that and implement it" said Khadka to Citizen News Service (CNS).
"Tobacco industry's strategies are very similar whether they are in small or big countries but owing to government's commitment their interference in health policy is checked in Nepal and we need to enforce 5.3 in Nepal as soon as possible" reassured Shanta Bahadur Shrestha, Secretary, Ministry of Health and Population, Government of Nepal.
"Ratification of WHO FCTC by Nepal in 2006 had spiralled into a range of actions on the ground in Nepal with stronger domestic legislations and directives on tobacco control. Despite challenges Nepal has been successful in implementing domestic tobacco control laws. Several ministries other than that of health and population are also coordinating to implement tobacco control laws and advance life-saving public health measures. For example, Ministry of Finance in Nepal is increasing excise duty on tobacco every year. Likewise duty-free tobacco and alcohol both are banned in Nepal," said Shrestha. Studies show that by increasing taxes, tobacco consumers decrease and number of young people initiating tobacco use also drops.
He added: "It is easier to regulate (organized) cigarette industry in Nepal as there are laws and regulations. But smokeless tobacco industry is unorganized and usually a small scale industry, which is difficult to regulate. Open borders between India and Nepal also pose a challenge. For example bordering states of India have banned smokeless tobacco forms such as Gutkha but Nepal has not banned Gutkha. Gutkha production happens on the India-Nepal border and we are not able to regulate it or tax it in Nepal." Gutkha was banned in several Indian states because Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA) of India banned any food item containing nicotine (and Gutkha was regulated as a mouth freshener, a food item).
Tobacco control is not just the mandate of health ministry rather warrants coordination between a range of ministries and sectors. "Assistant Chief District Officer (CDO) is the key authority to implement tobacco control in the district. Out of 75 districts some officers are very active in implementing tobacco control laws but some are not due to other commitments. Ministry of Home Affairs supervises these officers. There needs to be more interdepartmental coordination" said Kedar Bahadur Bogati, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Health and Population, Government of Nepal.
SMOKING AND SMOKELESS TOBACCO USE BANNED
Nepal has taken a major leap by banning use of smoking forms of tobacco as well as of smokeless tobacco forms in public places. "Tobacco Control and Regulatory Act 2011 bans use of all forms of tobacco (both smoking and smokeless tobacco use) at public places. Public places include public transports also" said Bogati.
Khadka shared that Nepal has demonstrated leadership in South Asian region in implementing strong pictorial graphic health warnings on all tobacco products. Till mid-October 2014, India ranked 136th in implementation of pictorial graphic health warnings but Nepal was on 4th rank with warnings spanning over 75% of total display area of a tobacco pack. India had covered only 0% of total display area of a tobacco pack till mid October 2014 when its policy changed for the better and notifications to cover 85% of total display area with warnings from 1st April 2015 hitting headlines. Hookah restaurants with water pipe smoking are gaining popularity among young people and pose huge challenge.
Tara Singh Bam of The Union pointed out that Nepalese government also has a stake in tobacco industry despite which it has prioritised public health. "Despite some conflict of interest, government is advancing measures for tobacco control with sincerity. Effective implementation of all the tobacco control provisions that exist in current laws in Nepal is a top priority. For example, 75% pictorial warnings, complete ban on tobacco use at all public places including public transport, even in the private transportation, are couple of strong measures that exist in Nepal. Nepal's smokefree laws also ban smoking in homes as well. That is also an unique provision in the law. Currently, I can see an appreciative leadership is being demonstrated by Honourable Khagraj Adikari, Minister of Health and Population in advancing tobacco control in Nepal. In short span of time since 2007 onwards Nepal has managed to show good leadership on tobacco control."