Divestment of the government from the tobacco industry has been a key demand of anti-tobacco campaigners for a long time.

WHAT IS DIVESTMENT?

Divestment is the opposite of investment. In finance and economics, divestment is the reduction of some kind of asset for financial, ethical, or political objectives or sale of an existing business by an organisation. Divestment usually involves eliminating a portion of a business. An organisation may elect to sell, close, or spin-off a strategic business unit, major operating division, or product line for divestment.

WHY DIVESTMENT FROM THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY?

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declared in the 2016 South Asian speakers’ summit on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals that Bangladesh will be free from tobacco by 2040.  “Although we have made notable progress in tobacco control, we are not complacent. We have to do more to fully comply with the FCTC and to reduce tobacco use substantially in Bangladesh, making our beloved country tobacco free by 2040,” she said. At the same time, she emphasised health development surcharge (sometimes called sin tax), strong tobacco tax policy and all possible measures for effective implementation of existing tobacco control laws.

While governments seek to improve the health of their citizens by implementing involvements to trim down tobacco consumption, the tobacco industry uses its economic power and lobbying competence to hold up, weaken, or prevent the introduction and enforcement of effective tobacco control measures.  To prevent tobacco industry interference in tobacco control policies, the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), a global health treaty, has included a set of measures to raise awareness of industry tactics and reduce the ability of tobacco companies to undermine tobacco control interventions. These eight measures constitute the guidelines for implementation of FCTC Article 5.3 “on the protection of public health policies with respect to tobacco control from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.” Two of the eight key measures call for government bodies not to have any financial interest in the tobacco industry.

At present, the government and its agencies own about 13 percent shares of the British American Tobacco Bangladesh, effectively occupying 60 percent posts in the company’s board of directors (12.86 percent is owned by Investment Corporation of Bangladesh, Shadharan Bima Corporation, Bangladesh Development Bank Limited, and directly the Government of People’s Republic of Bangladesh, according to the BATB website). Investing in tobacco companies creates a conflict of interest for the government between its responsibility to protect public health by driving down tobacco use and its desire to maximise returns on its investments by maximising tobacco sales.

In a recent study, the damage caused by tobacco and revenue from the tobacco industry are as follows:

Damage caused by tobacco: Revenue from tobacco industry:
Around 126,000 people died in 2018 due to tobacco-related diseases. The economic loss due to tobacco in 2017-18 fiscal year is Tk 305.6 billion. Revenue income from tobacco industry
in 2017-18 fiscal year is Tk 228.1 billion.

 

Source: 1.Global burden of diseases study. Country profile Bangladesh 2018. 2. Faruque GM, Wadood SN,Ahmed M,Parven R,Huq I,Chowdhury SR. The economic cost of tobacco use in Bangladesh: A health cost approach. Bangladesh Cancer Society.February 23, 2019.


So, if the government continues to keep its investment together with BATB and also keep representing its board, the conflict of interest can hardly be avoided and Bangladesh may be regarded to be uncooperative with FCTC and even achieving the SDG for health may become a far cry. Given the context, as a Bangladeshi civil society organisation, Sushashoner Jonno Prochar Ovijan (SUPRO) wishes to stand to change the scenario. Getting other like-minded organisations on board, SUPRO wants to make efforts through policy advocacy to push the government to divest from BATB and stop sending representatives to its board so that a corporation cannot play with the health of our people in the name of contributing to national growth.

Mohammad Hasnainis the project coordinator of Sushasoner Jonyo Procharabhijan or SUPRO (Campaign for Good Governance).

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