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E-cigarette use up alarmingly

78% shops opened in 5 yrs

Published : 04 Apr 2023 08:02 PM | Updated : 05 Apr 2023 06:16 PM

(PART-1 )

The Prime Minister has committed to making Bangladesh a tobacco-free country by 2040 to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and build a healthy nation.

The reality is that, whether as a result of the anti-tobacco movement, or because of the government’s efforts, or both, the rate of smokers in Bangladesh is declining in proportion to the population.

“The number of tobacco users in proportion to the population dropped by 8% in the last 18 years since the introduction of tobacco control law,” said Hossain Ali Khandaker, coordinator (additional secretary) at National Tobacco Control Cell (NTCC) of the Health Ministry. 

However, e-cigarette use and availability are increasing day by day. 

According to a survey conducted by this correspondent, only 22% of the retail vaping shops have been selling e-cigarettes for over five years. The remaining 78% of the e-cigarette outlets opened within five years after 2016 (2017-2021). This proves the increase in e-cigarette sales in recent times in Bangladesh.

Syed Saiful Alam Shovan, a researcher on tobacco control coordinated with this correspondent in the investigation. 

There were at least 32 e-cigarette and e-liquid brands found during visits to markets. This correspondent refrains from mentioning the brand names to avoid advertising on tobacco.

The brands are also available in online markets. Names, pictures and prices are usually given in the sites of online shops.

The novel addictive product is easily within the purchasing capacity of low-income sections and students. 

(Vape Adda, an e-cigarette shop, was established in front of East West University, a leading private university in Bangladesh, at Aftabnagar area in the capital.)“The device starts from Tk 550 to Tk 35,000 and the liquid price is between Tk 350 and Tk 24,000. Still the price decreases day by day,” Farhana Zaman Liza, project manager at Tobacco Control & Research Cell (TCRC) of Dhaka International University (DIU) told this correspondent following a TCRC study. 

Anti-tobacco activists, experts on public health and doctors are concerned about the drastic rise of e-cigarette. “E-cigarette is very harmful for public health. We are worried about its rapid expansion,” said Prof. Dr. Arup Ratan Choudhury, head of Department of Dentistry at BIRDEM Hospital and founder president of Association For the Prevention of Drug Abuse (MANAS).

Prof. Dr. Arup Ratan Choudhury

Echoing the same, Dr. Sohel Reza Choudhury, professor & head of Department of Epidemiology & Research at National Heart Foundation of Bangladesh said, “E-cigarette is undoubtedly dangerous to health. It contains dangerous chemicals, causing lung disease, heart disease and some other diseases.”

Syed Mahbubul Alam Tahin, technical adviser at The Union; and many others also expressed concern. 

The investigation found tobacco industry’s various tactics to rapidly expand the e-cigarette market in order to undermine the ‘Tobacco-free Bangladesh’ goal.

The tobacco industry (TI) wants to establish e-cigarette as an alternative to conventional cigarettes and other tobacco products, applying their narrative: “Vaping could help achieve Bangladesh’s aim of being tobacco-free by 2040”. 

“It is a nonsense narrative. They want to undermine the goal through such confusing and misleading narratives,” said Syed Mahbubul Alam Tahin. 

Giant tobacco companies, particularly British American Tobacco (BAT) and Japan Tobacco International (JTI), are playing a vital role in promoting, importing and marketing e-cigarette in Bangladesh. Many tobacco companies and e-commerce sites are selling various kinds of e-cigarette products, highlighting the so-called ‘positive sides’.  

It was found that many non-smokers are also turning to e-cigarettes as a result of the tobacco industry’s tactics and propaganda. 

Mohammad Rimel, seller of Smoke World, a vape shop located at 2nd floor of New Market in Dhaka; Al Amin, proprietor of a stationary shop named ‘Bhai Bhai Store’ at Modhubagh who also sells cigarette;  Mansura Akhter, a young woman at Rampura area who uses e-cigarette; speak in favour of such statement. “I was not a traditional smoker, but now I use e-cigarette,” said Mansura Akhter.

Prof. Dr. Sohel Reza Choudhury

This correspondent visited vaping shops at different places in Dhaka to get a general picture of e-cigarette sales and find out TI tactics to expand the market. 

Visits were also paid to different restaurants, coffee shops and specific lounges for e-cigarette users developed by tobacco companies. Visit was also paid to Chattogram to find out information regarding e-cigarette importation. 

A survey was conducted on 50 retail vaping shops in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Tobacco related laws and regulations were analyzed, while various publications and documents collected from government and non-government offices were reviewed. All the issues of ‘THE TRADE MARKS JOURNAL’ published from January 2000 to December 2021 were collected and reviewed to get detailed information about trademark registration, marketing and import of e-cigarette. 

Visits to 50 shops, undertaken for the purpose of this survey, proves the increased prevalence of e-cigarettes, because there were no e-cigarette shops in Dhaka just a few years ago.

Analyzing the publications and visiting different vaping shops, the evidence has been found that the e-cigarette is expanding in Bangladesh due to the tobacco industry’s aggressive marketing policy. 

TI began applying various tactics for e-cigarette expansion following the prime minister’s announcement. They try to convince policymakers with misleading information that vaping is the perfect tool to achieve the ‘Tobacco-free Bangladesh’ goal. 

Tobacco companies have many online platforms to amplify misleading information. For example, BAT Bangladesh campaigns from its site about ‘harm reduction’ of e-cigarettes.

The ‘harm reduction’ term has been introduced to expand e-cigarette, said Syed Mahbubul Alam Tahin.

TI introduced e-cigarette, also called Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS), in Bangladesh just years after it was introduced in the global market in 2006. 

Schumann Zaman, who is one of the campaigners for e-cigarette and president of Bangladesh Electronic Nicotine Delivery System Traders Association (BENDSTA); imported e-cigarettes first in Bangladesh in 2012. He has repeatedly called upon the government not to ban the e-cigarette. 

Syed Mahbubul Alam Tahin

Quoting research by the UK Health Security Agency, Schumann Zaman tells this correspondent, “Vaping is 95% less harmful than traditional cigarettes.”

The Guardian reports that a group of experts led by David Nutt, a former chief drugs adviser to the British government, picked up the term ‘95% safer’ from a paper published in 2014. David Nutt was fired as he declared that Ecstasy or MDMA (Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) and LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) were safer than alcohol.

Refuting BENDSTA President’s statement, Prof. Dr. Arup Ratan Choudhury said, “Vaping is not less harmful, it is more dangerous. Vaping has become a gateway to drug addiction. Many youths who come to the drug rehabilitation centers first used e-cigarettes, then became drug addicts.” 

Until the first few years after the arrival of e-cigarette in 2012, a few e-cigarette shops were found only in Dhaka city. According to an estimate in 2016, the number of e-cigarette users in Bangladesh was about two lakh. 

According to the GATS-2017 report, e-cigarette users were 0.2% of the total population. NTCC now estimates that the number has already crossed over hundreds of thousands. 

According to the survey of this correspondent, about 40 of the 50 shops started selling e-cigarettes after 2016. So, it could be deduced that the number of e-cigarette users in the country has increased several times after 2016.

Alongside the increase in the number of vaping shops, the number of customers is also increasing in almost all vaping shops. 

“We have been selling e-cigarettes for several years. The number of e-cigarette shops was very few during the beginning of our shop. Now the number has increased. However, our sales and number of customers have not decreased, rather our sales increased,” said Mohammad Rimel of Smoke World.