21 Jul 2010
Syed Mahbubul Alam’s career in tobacco control began when a transnational tobacco company sailed its yacht into Bangladesh in the hopes of finding new cigarette addicts.
British American Tobacco (BAT) owned the yacht, and had named it after one of its cigarette brands, the John Player Gold Leaf. In 1991, the yacht set sail on a “Voyage of Discovery” from London to 17 countries in 170 days, with the final destination being Chittagong – a port city in Bangladesh.
The voyage was a thinly veiled attempt by BAT to attract new smokers in targeted countries. As advertising for the voyage began to appear on billboards, in newspapers and at tobacco sales counters in these countries, civil liberties groups united in their outrage and began to plan ways to protest the voyage.
People power takes-off
One such group was Work for a Better Bangladesh Trust (WBB), where Syed works as programme manager.
“I don’t believe tobacco companies are powerful – I believe people are powerful,” said Syed. “If you get the support of the people you can do great things.”
It was this people support, or power, that triggered WBB’s work against the BAT voyage and in turn, its work on tobacco control in Bangladesh.
When the yacht arrived in Bangladesh it was met with fierce opposition and protests, and many of BAT’s promotional activities were cancelled. A few days after its arrival, the vessel quietly sailed away.
Tobacco control unites
Ironically, BAT’s voyage was also the catalyst for the formation of the Bangladesh Anti-Tobacco Alliance (BATA), an informal union of health, anti-drug, tobacco control and other organisations. WBB plays a major role within BATA, which now leads a strong and active tobacco control movement in the country.
This movement remained strong, and in June 2003 Bangladesh signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
At that moment, not many people knew about tobacco control in Bangladesh, said Syed.
“People were aware of the harmful effects of smoking but not many of us knew much about tobacco control, so we had to work hard in educating ourselves,” he added.
Syed and tobacco control
“I have learnt a lot from the tobacco control community, such as policy work, advocacy, networking, researching, monitoring the industry and creating public support.”
At WBB, Syed works in advocacy and policy development, and is a member of the tobacco control law draft committee for the FCTC. A non-profit organisation (NGO), WBB works to improve public health and the environment through research, material development, advocacy, media work, NGO capacity building and networking. It also supports policies to reduce active and passive tobacco use.
“I have learnt a lot from this role – more than I can imagine because besides my usual work I also sometimes have to be a media spokesperson and activist,” said Syed.