Non-smokers and anti-tobacco groups in Oman have justified reasons to be happy. Authorities in the Sultanate are considering using tax as weapon in war on tobacco and stub out smoking in public places with ban. An overwhelming majority of Times of Oman readers favoured Municipal Council slapping an outright ban on sale of tobacco in Oman. Times of Oman, in an opinion poll, asked its readers, "Should the Municipal Council slap an outright ban on sale of tobacco in Oman?" Seventy-eight per cent responded saying 'yes' and only 17.8 per cent opined against such move.
And I am with the minority who believe that an outright ban on the sale of tobacco will actually be counterproductive not because I am a smoker myself but because such a move will be bizarre.
Criminalisation of smoking and sale of tobacco is perhaps the last thing a national government or civil authorities in any country would ever look forward to. Prohibition has never made our world any better nor has it embellished our civilization.
I am a smoker yet I am one of those who strongly believe that my bystanders in any public place or elsewhere have right to clean nicotine-free air. Regulations, therefore, are needed but outright ban on the sale of tobacco will certainly be too harsh a step. Smoking, barring in public places, isn't a crime; it is a social menace and therefore it doesn't warrant a ban.
Outright ban on the sale of tobacco will infringe on personal freedom. Smoking, undeniably, is a matter of personal choice. A blanket ban on smoking and sale of tobacco products would mean a crackdown on personal choice.
But, this is not the only reason why I am against outright ban on sale of tobacco in Oman and elsewhere in the world. Such a move will be ill advised because it will be administratively difficult for any authority to enforce properly. It will invariably lead to black marketing and smuggling.
Way back in 2005, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan declared a war against smoking and banned sale of tobacco. Six years later, The New York Times reported that the ban bombed and Bhutan "made little headway as smugglers brought in cigarettes from India." In its war against tobacco and smoking, Bhutan lost precious revenue; failed to control smoking habit and encouraged growth of smuggling.
In 2006, China too initiated moves to free the nation of tobacco. It signed the Free Tobacco Initiative. Eight years later, there are probably more smokers in China today than there were in 2006.
Banning smoking or sale of tobacco, criminalising a personal choice are not the right way to curb the menace or an habit which indeed poses serious health hazard not only to the smokers but also to those who are often compelled to smoke sans their desire.
The Sultanate's move to use tax as weapon in war on tobacco, however, is a step in right direction and has been endorsed even by the World Bank. It says that scores of studies have shown that increased taxes reduce the number of smokers and the number of smoking-related deaths. Price increases induce some smokers to quit and prevent others from becoming regular or persistent smokers.
In its endorsement of using tax as weapon in war against tobacco the World Bank has dispelled a general myth which the pro-tobacco lobby seeks to raise. It says that tax increase raising the real price of cigarettes by at least ten per cent would encourage a large number of smokers world wide to quit smoking and prevent tobacco-related deaths. A model developed in 1995 showed that ten per cent increase in the price of cigarettes would have persuaded 40 million smokers to give up the habit and prevent ten million deaths.
Pro-tobacco lobby, in its bid to frustrate efforts to use tax as weapon in war on tobacco, has always been saying tobacco addiction is so strong that simply raising taxes will not reduce demand; therefore, raising taxes is not justified. This is sheer pettifogging. World Bank's stand on the issue is unequivocal. People on low incomes are more price-responsive than those on high -incomes, so there is likely to be a bigger impact in developing countries where tobacco consumption is still increasing.
High tobacco taxation is certainly the best ointment authorities can use to curb smoking. "The relationship between price and tobacco consumption is known as the 'elasticity' and the price elasticity for cigarettes is around 0.4. This means a ten per cent increase in price causes four per cent drop in consumption."
But, most effective will be if we can develop zero tolerance for smokers and smoking in Oman like what we see in the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and in other developed economies.
During my last trip to the United States, I came across a surprising incident on a road in Dallas. I had just lighted a cigarette when an elderly lady hurriedly approached me crossing a busy road, snatched away my burning cigarette and stubbed it under her boots. She looked at me and said, "You have the right to smoke but no right to make others without their permission."
This intolerance has to be developed and then only an effective resistance against smoking can be built up. No law, no ban on the sale of tobacco can ever completely curb smoking. Society can, we can.
The author is the Opinion Editor of Times of Oman. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.