Women’s tobacco control alliance in Bangladesh encouraged by COP decisions

09 Dec 2014

The first was adoption of the Moscow Declaration. It recognises that societies’ most vulnerable groups are hit hardest by the tobacco epidemic, recognition that could be used to promote implementation of FCTC Art 4.2(d) on gender-specific approaches to tobacco control.

The need to promote gender aspects of tobacco control is also recognised in the decision on a FCTC working group focused on measures to accelerate sustainable implementation of the treaty and in another COP decision that calls for an impact assessment of the FCTC.

Not gender-neutral activism

Till now, tobacco control has been gender-neutral activism, although women are affected as users: as victims of passive smoking and as tobacco farmers and processors. However, the situation is changing in Bangladesh.

On the occasion of World No Tobacco Day (2010) the World Health Organization focused on the issue of the tobacco industry targeting women in its marketing. In response, and with the support of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a meeting was called of women-led organisations from 54 districts of the country. On 31 May 2010, the Alliance of Women against Tobacco was born. (In Bangla, it is called Tamak Birodhi Nari Jote, or Tabinaj).

According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (2009) and updates by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (April, 2014) women are among the 43.3 percent of adults (41.3 million people) who are current tobacco users in Bangladesh. Smoking among women is low (1.5 percent) but their use of smokeless tobacco is much higher – 27.9 percent. About 30 percent of women are exposed to tobacco smoke in workplaces and 21 percent in public places.

Data lacking

While women’s use of smokeless tobacco has received some attention due to prevalence among reproductive-aged women, no gender disaggregated data on tobacco related deaths and illnesses is available.

Tabinaj works with women who farm tobacco and work in factories making bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes). However, it focuses on control of smokeless tobacco products (SLTs) as they are less recognised as a “problem”. In an investigation, Tabinaj found that 130 brands of jarda (chewing tobacco) and 12 brands of gul (powdered tobacco) are produced in 35 districts, and their use by women is a socially acceptable practice.

Getting SLTs included in the definition of tobacco products in Bangladesh’s tobacco control law has been one of the primary aims of Tabinaj’s advocacy.

Law amended

Bangladesh passed amendments to the law in 2013. They included bringing smokeless tobacco products under the ambit of the law, with prohibition of advertising and mandatory large, graphic health warnings on smokeless tobacco packaging. Now that the law covers smokeless tobacco products, roughly 21 million women, previously overlooked, will be warned about the deadly effects of tobacco use.

Following up on COP6, the Government of Bangladesh has further opportunities to address tobacco use among women. For example, it could take part in an exercise to assess implementation of the FCTC in Bangladesh and in the process, improve its understanding of what further improvements in tobacco control policy can be made, including policies that address tobacco use prevalence among women, children and vulnerable socioeconomic groups.

The Government could also join the FCTC working group that looks into sustainable measures – including those that will contribute to addressing tobacco use among women – in order to mobilise political will and resources for tobacco control.

Let the women of the world unite against tobacco.

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