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Bangladesh: keeping up the pressure to tighten tobacco control

After sustained pressure from civil society, the government of Bangladesh agreed to strengthen its tobacco control legislation last August. An alliance of medical networks, United Forum Against Tobacco (UFAT) hosted by the National Heart Foundation of Bangladesh, is working hard to keep the pressure on the government to make the amendment strong.

Bangladesh Tobacco Act falls short of full protection

The current tobacco control law in Bangladesh has several shortcomings. Its smoking ban allows smoking areas; its advertising ban applies only to direct advertising, but not Corporate Social Responsibility activities that the industry uses to promote itself. The law requires text warnings on cigarette packs, but not the more effective pictorial warnings, and the labeling law does not apply to the smokeless tobacco products which are very popular in South Asia.

UFAT mobilizes physicians to support tobacco control

UFAT organized a series of meetings with Ministers to brief them on the elements that needed to be amended, and in June an UFAT delegation met with the President of Bangladesh to submit a memorandum on amending the tobacco control act. In August, the National Heart Foundation worked with Dhaka Ahsania Mission, PROGGA and the Anti Tobacco Media Association (ATMA) to organize the Voice of Tobacco Victims campaign: “We organized a meeting with the Minister of Law” explains Sohel Choudhury, who coordinates the Heart Foundation’s tobacco control activities, “and brought in patients with heart disease and different kinds of cancer caused by tobacco use.  They told about their painful experiences, and we showed a video with well-known medical specialists explaining the health and environmental impact of tobacco.  The Minister listened for three hours and was very moved, and the journalists ensured that it got wide press coverage.” 

Tobacco industry challenges progress

The battle is not yet won: the tobacco industry is working hard, meeting with Ministers and other officials to convince them to delay and weaken the amendment. “There are elections next year and if we don’t get the amendment passed in the next six months, it will get buried and we may need to start the campaign from scratch,” explains Choudhury. Prof. Abdul  Malik, Chairman of UFAT,  is confident: “We are working for a good cause so we know that we will win. As long as we keep it up, it is just a matter of time.”  The Heart Foundation is doing just that:  in its World Heart Day event, the main speaker was the Minister for Cultural Affairs; it asked him to ban indirect advertisement such as showing cigarettes in films, television and drama.  UFAT has also met with the chairman of the National Board of Revenue to ask for an increase in tobacco taxes.

About the United Forum Against Tobacco and the National Heart Foundation of Bangladesh

Led by Prof. Malik, UFAT was founded in 2010 and started a project on engaging physicians for tobacco control with funding from the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. It brings together National Heart Foundation of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Cancer Society, Bangladesh Lung Foundation, Bangladesh Society of Medicine, and Association of Physicians’ of Bangladesh to involve physicians and other health workers in tobacco control. Its divisional chapters advocate with their MPs and local politicians to provide grassroots support for initiatives at central level.  The National Heart Foundation also has established a cessation clinic.  There are no medications available to treat tobacco dependence in Bangladesh, but it provides behavioral counseling. Also working with smokeless tobacco users, clinic staff find them more responsive to counseling than smokers.  “Our main problem,” says Dr. Choudhury, “is not the patients….it’s the doctors: we are working with them to get them to refer patients to us.” The Heart Foundation has also piloted community-based cessation counseling.

To learn more about UFAT:
UFAT film clip on health impact of tobacco use >
Press articles on Voices of Tobacco Victims:

Press article on Amendment to tobacco control law >

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