Government efforts at reducing tobacco use through increased taxation is being seriously undermined by the smuggling industry which makes available tax free cigarettes to young people and price sensitive smokers, National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA) Chief Prof Carlo Fonseka said.
Smuggling also reduce Government revenue that is an increasingly important funding source for tobacco control and other public health programs, he added while reviewing a report on illicit trade of tobacco products in Sri Lanka.
The report regarded as the first systematic attempt to investigate the subject in Sri Lanka, according to Prof Fonseka identifies Colombo Port as the main entry point of smuggled cigarettes into the country.
It has named the airport and smuggling via Indian boats as the secondary sources of entry.
The report quoting unnamed customs sources state that 75 percent of smuggled tobacco products come from Dubai. “Sometimes the products that come from Dubai go first to India, where the container labels are changed to ‘Sugar’ container Cargo”, it states.
The study sponsored by the Framework Convention Alliance (FCA) and Health Bridge states that in Asia illicit trade constitutes nine percent of the overall sales. However figures on its prevalence on Sri Lankan soil is not available as there are no consolidated records or estimates.
The report citing details provided by the Customs Department states that officials had detected nearly 245.3 million illegal sticks in 2004, 82 million sticks in 2005, 27.9 million sticks in 2007, 33.5 million in 2008 and 40 million sticks in 2009. However the NATA feels that a larger number enters the country undetected by fraudulent means. However the Sri Lanka Excise Department has plans to launch a comprehensive study on the issue in the near future.
Another significant issue which hampers Government efforts at increased taxation to deter smoking is the prevalence of the cottage industry of manufacturing Sudu Beedi (white cigarettes) and Beedi.
According to the Excise Commissioner General around 200,000 people are engaged in the manufacture and trade in this industry.No tax is levied on the above two products and they are popular with low income earners due to cheap prices. The study states that the current prevalence of tobacco use in Sri Lanka is 39 percent among males and 2.6 percent among females. This is taking into consideration both chewing and smoking.
According to Health Ministry figures tobacco use is the second largest cause of all deaths and disabilities from non communicable diseases in Sri Lanka with over 20,000 lives being lost annually.
The NATA Chief feels that the 12 recommendations mentioned in the report which includes strengthening of law enforcement network, introducing new regulations etc merits the attention of authorities and activists concerned with tobacco control in Sri Lanka.
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