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Saving Childhood: Preventing The Initiation Of Cigarette Smoking Among Children

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“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”

The above quotation from Mark Twain aptly describes the predicament faced by those that attempt to quit smoking. It is tremendously difficult to break the habit of smoking, even more so for children. Additionally, children are more likely to form addiction to nicotine as compared to adults. 10 percent of youth who become hooked on cigarettes are addicted within two days of first inhaling from a cigarette, as per a study published by the Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

In view of the above, it is of paramount importance to ensure that children do not initiate cigarette smoking in the first place. Considering the harmful effects of tobacco, the proverbial saying, ‘’prevention is better than cure’’, comes to mind.

Unfortunately, about 1,200 children between the ages of 6 and 15 start smoking in Pakistan every day, as per estimates revealed by the Ministry of National Health Services (NHS) Regulations and Coordination. This column will focus on limiting the availability of cigarettes to children along with the national and international legal framework. It is vital that the problem is effectively tackled even before its origin so that children are saved from the life threatening curse of nicotine addiction.

Pakistan ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) on the 3rd of November 2004. Article 16 governs the prohibition on the sales of tobacco products to minors. Additionally, the Prohibition of Sale of Cigarettes to Minors Rules 2010 prohibits the sale of tobacco products to persons under the age of 18. Likewise, the Punjab Tobacco Vend Act 1958 is enforced in Punjab. However, the aforementioned statistics reveal the jarring reality owing to the poor implementation of the laws.

Cigarettes are often sold through small kiosks and shops in every nook and corner across all cities of Pakistan. These appeal to minors as they are sold alongside candies and chocolates and are well within the reach of children as the kiosks operate near neighbourhoods, schools, parks and local tea restaurants. This violates the WHO FCTC and the Tobacco Vendors Act 1958. The ibid Act prohibits shopkeepers in the federal capital from selling cigarettes and other tobacco products without a license from the excise and taxation department.

Furthermore, as per NHS Parliamentary Secretary Dr Nausheen Hamid, unregulated/ illegal cigarettes are sold at Rs25 to Rs30 for a box containing 20 cigarettes. This makes the purchase of cigarettes within the reach of minors as it is an affordable price range. This is particularly true for children on the streets and those that are in conflict or in contact with the law. Additionally, cigarettes are often sold individually, further increasing the prevalence of cigarette smoking among minors and keeping their purchase within their pockets. Although SRO (Statutory Notification) 415 bans the sale of cigarettes in loose form, its rampant violation is a common practice. This has the consequence of rendering SRO 2019 redundant. This is because the children never see the 60% pictorial health warning on cigarette packs. As a result, the minors do not understand the grave health consequences arising from cigarette smoking but only the ‘glamorisation and coolness’ often associated with cigarettes as depicted in Bollywood/Hollywood films. Although SRO 1086 (I)/2013 banned tobacco product advertisements in print, electronic and outdoor media, the biggest inspiration that inclines minors towards cigarette smoking comes from movies and peer pressure.

The lack of enforcement of the otherwise stringent legislation in relation to tobacco control is the leading cause behind the increasing prevalence of cigarette smoking among minors. It is of utmost importance to ensure their urgent enforcement.

Smoking causes long-term health problems including, heart disease, lung disease and different types of cancer (lung, stomach, throat). Children must be safeguarded as they are often unable to apprehend how their current choices can affect their future.

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Naya Daur