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Bangladesh: voyage of disdain sunk without trace
  1. Regional Advisor, PATH Canada
  2. Dhaka-1205, Bangladesh
  3. pathCan{at}

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    The story so far: BAT's the John Player Gold Leaf, a sailing boat bearing the name of a cigarette brand, having sailed from London on a “voyage of discovery” (otherwise known as a massive and cynical cigarette promotion, showing utter disdain for the health of people in some of the world's poorest countries), failed to dock at one of its Sri Lankan destinations following demonstrations there by health advocates (seeTobacco Control2000;9:9–10), and turned northwest for Bangladesh. But here, too, the sponsors were in for a big surprise.

    In June, health advocates in Bangladesh were alarmed to see advertising for the “voyage of discovery”, BAT's huge multinational promotional campaign for its John Player Gold Leaf cigarette brand. A development group, Working for a Better Bangladesh, realising that this campaign was too big for any one organisation to tackle alone, called a meeting of organisations known to work in tobacco control. The National Non- Smokers' Forum attended, and the two groups agreed that a coalition of anti-tobacco groups be formed to address the issue. In August and September, more groups came forward and attended meetings to discuss what to do about the voyage, and possible collaboration in other areas of tobacco control. Outrage at the advertising campaign was universal, perhaps matched only by a sense of impotence in dealing with the multinational tobacco company, which in 1996 bought the controlling share of the former Bangladesh monopoly, Bangladesh Tobacco Company, and is now the biggest taxpayer in Bangladesh.

    As the months progressed and voyage adverts on billboards, in newspapers, and at points of sale for tobacco multiplied, about 15 organisations came together to protest against it. With this surge of interest came the Bangladesh Anti-Tobacco Alliance (BATA), an informal coalition of health, antidrug, tobacco control, and women's groups, including the Bangladesh Cancer Society, the National Anti-Drug Federation of NGOs, the Consumers' Association of Bangladesh, and the long established tobacco control organisation ADHUNIK.

    In October, BATA held a press conference denouncing the voyage as an attempt to find customers in poor countries to replace those who are giving up smoking in the wealthy ones. Bangladesh, as one of the 20 poorest countries in the world, is a particularly inappropriate target for the predatory tactics of tobacco companies. At the time of the voyage, the price of Gold Leaf regular was 47 taka, about US$1. The average per capita income for Bangladesh is only about US$230 per annum.

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    Things heated up in November when Bhorer Kagoj, the only national newspaper that voluntarily refuses to publish tobacco adverts (see Tobacco Control1998;7:228–9), convened another meeting. Tactics to counter the voyage were discussed, and Tania Amir, a lawyer donating her professional services to the cause, suggested filing a writ petition to the court, to prevent the boat from docking at its intended destination, the port of Chittagong. While she did not expect the petition to be successful, she explained that the alliance could at least test the opinion of the high court on tobacco advertising. (Bangladesh had a presidential decree banning tobacco advertising in 1990, but the parliament never turned it into law, so it remained frozen.)

    BAT's by now infamous boat docked in Chittagong on 21 November, amid protests and “sinking boat” posters, and the writ petition was filed the next day (the delay was caused by antigovernment strikes). BAT held an event celebrating the boat's arrival, at which the mayor of Chittagong, among others, welcomed it to Bangladesh, explaining that while smoking was bad for health, he wished to support the country's economy. However, ticket sales for concerts and other events were repeatedly postponed, as BAT was aware that the events might be banned.

    To the delight of the health community at home and abroad, the high court responded favourably to the petition, banning all further promotional activities around the voyage, declaring it illegal based on the 1990 law (unfortunately, the law did not seem to extend to other forms of tobacco advertising). As a result of the decision, the concerts and other events planned around the voyage were cancelled, and the associated newspaper advertisements that had been appearing every day were stopped. The boat sailed away quietly a few days later.

    The victory was by no means total. Billboards and display cases remained in place. Bangladesh Television (BTV), which does not otherwise show tobacco advertisements (they are banned on electronic media), repeatedly aired adverts for the voyage. The victory may have generated rancour against the health movement, as some young people in Chittagong expressed disappointment at the concerts being cancelled.

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    But the fight was not over. Tania Amir appeared in court repeatedly, along with the lawyer representing ADHUNIK. On 7 February, in response to writs filed by BATA and ADHUNIK, the high court reiterated that the voyage was illegal, and further declared that the government should ban the production and trade of tobacco. Although such a law would clearly be unfeasible, the high court ruling did contain many workable measures that BATA has since been pursuing, starting with making the warnings on packs and billboards large enough for people to see, and then banning tobacco advertising and smoking in public places.

    BATA realised that its work had only just begun, and made plans to expand, once it had become a legal body, and to recruit many more organisations to its ranks. A new wing has been created to address issues related to the health and economic effects of active and passive tobacco use among women. BATA is drafting model legislation for Bangladesh, in response to the high court's decision. It also planned a series of events around the country throughout May, to educate and inform the public about the dangers of tobacco and about industry practices, so that the public will support the growing anti-tobacco movement. In a country where 80% of people are Muslim, a religion that views tobacco as haram (illicit under the teachings of the Koran), BATA anticipates strong public support for its work.

    While BATA gains from the tobacco control experience of some of the larger non-governmental organisations among its members, the involvement of a wide range of groups, bringing their own experience, strengths, and contacts, has been critical to its success so far. There is still a long way to go before any genuine victory against BAT, and tobacco in general, can be declared. However, with strong backing from the high court, and the establishment of an active alliance against tobacco, in place of the previous situation of scattered groups working on their own, one thing is clear: a real tobacco control movement is alive and well in Bangladesh.