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January 23, 2018

Moving toward a sustainable tobacco control program in Pakistan

2017 was a year of progress for tobacco control in Pakistan. Legal and regulatory developments have led the country closer towards the establishment of Sustainable Funding Mechanisms for nationwide tobacco control communication programs.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Health, Tobacco Control Cell (TCC) and NGO partners are working to institutionalize mass media campaigns funded through a regulatory system established in 2002. Under a specific ordinance from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), up to 10% of all media airtime must be allotted for free public service announcements (PSAs).

Media campaigns are effective, cost-efficient measures that work in environments ranging from low-income rural communities to high-income countries. And frequent, high-reach and high-impact campaigns on media platforms that attract large audiences, such as television and radio, are a critical component in reducing the number of people harmed by tobacco. In Pakistan, these campaigns have the potential to impact more than 2 million adults and 555,000 children who use tobacco each day, killing more than 100,000 people every year.

Throughout 2017, working with the TCC, two PSAs have been distributed to networks. The first PSA, “Sponge,” aired over 1,800 times on TV. At the same time, coverage of these messages has been expanded through community-based channels, including a billboard and poster program featuring messages in hospital and health centers across the country.

A billboard for the “Sponge” campaign in Islamabad, Pakistan

The first year has bolstered the long-term prospects for the expansion of effective and powerful campaigns across the country. Pakistan’s Supreme Court has even defended the ordinance, calling for media outlets to comply with the Pemra rules for PSA content. In addition, a recent win in the courts by NGOs, presenting arguments over the lack of compliance with the Pemra rules, should ensure that future anti-tobacco campaigns receive more intensive coverage over a range of popular media outlets.

TCC has also been actively negotiating with cinema proprietors to run tobacco control PSAs in cinemas around the country, given the high burden of tobacco-related diseases. To date, 70 cinemas nationally have agreed to air the public service messages on their screens. This pilot program, means 3,000 people will see pre-tested anti-tobacco PSA’s daily.

In addition, as a result of considerable advocacy from civil society, the Pakistan government has also recently agreed to graphic health warnings on 50% of the front and back of all tobacco packs, with a move to increase the warnings to 60% by June 2019.

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