Bangladesh Country Profile

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Image source: Fredrik Rubensson/CC BY-SA 2.0

Key Points

  • Bangladesh is a country in South Asia, part of the World Health Organization’s South-East Asia Region.
  • It has a population of 171.2 million, with tobacco use prevalence of 43.7%.
  • Smoking prevalence is high, at 23.5%. However, smokeless tobacco (SLT) use prevalence is even higher, at 27.5%.
  • Bangladesh ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) in 2004. It has not ratified the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products.
  • The Bangladeshi cigarette market is dominated by British American Tobacco Bangladesh, followed by Japan Tobacco International’s local subsidiary United Dhaka Tobacco Company Limited. There are also local cigarette, bidi and SLT producers.
  • Recent tobacco industry tactics in Bangladesh include direct lobbying of civil servants, which successfully obtained an exemption to lockdown restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic; using diplomats to lobby in its interests; and the mobilisation of third-party organisations against tobacco control.

In 2016, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declared her intention to make Bangladesh tobacco free by 2040.1 Bangladesh has in recent years increased its compliance with the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), created a dedicated tobacco control cell and introduced a health surcharge on all tobacco products.12 However, according to a study published in 2022, no measures have been adopted to implement Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC.3 Industry interference in public policy – particularly by British American Tobacco Bangladesh (BATB), in which the state holds a share of over 9% – is an ongoing challenge.34 The study’s authors argue that progress in minimising such interference is essential if the commitment to a creating a tobacco-free Bangladesh by 2040 is to be met.3

Tobacco Use in Bangladesh

In 2022, the population of Bangladesh was 171.2 million.5 Among adults aged from 18 to 69, overall tobacco use prevalence was nearly 44% as of 2018 (almost 60% of men and over 28% of women).6

As of 2018, 23.5% of Bangladeshi adults smoked.6 Cigarettes were the most popular product: amongst current tobacco smokers, over 99% reported using cigarettes, compared to 32.5% who reported smoking bidis (cigarettes rolled by hand in a dried leaf of the tendu tree).6 There was a major gender difference, with nearly 47% of men reporting current smoking at the time of the survey, compared to 1% of women.6

At 27.5%, smokeless tobacco (SLT) use is even more common than smoked tobacco.6 This is due in part to the high prevalence of SLT use amongst Bangladeshi women. Over 28% of Bangladeshi women used SLT, compared to nearly 27% of men.6Most female tobacco users in low- and middle-income countries are SLT users in India and Bangladesh.7 Popular SLT products include betel quid with zarda, betel quid with sadapata, pan masala with tobacco and gul.6

Amongst adolescents aged from 13 to 17, nearly 10% used tobacco in some form as of 2014, with almost 14% of boys using tobacco compared to 2% of girls.8 The rate for cigarette smoking was nearly 8%, with 11% of boys smoking compared to 1.5% of girls.8

There were an estimated 106,000 deaths attributable to smoking in 2019, accounting for over 12% of all mortality in Bangladesh that year.9 The total annual cost of tobacco use in Bangladesh was estimated at BDT৳305.6 billion (US$3.6 billion) in 2018, which was equivalent to 1.4% of GDP in 2017-18.10 Direct healthcare costs accounted for BDT৳83.9 billion, of which 24% was covered by public health expenditure. This is a significant outlay, representing 8.9% of the healthcare budget in 2018-19.10 However, most of the costs attributable to tobacco use – both direct and indirect – are borne by tobacco users and their families.10 While the economic contribution of the tobacco industry to Bangladeshi GDP was estimated at BDT৳229.11 billion ($US2.7 billion) in 2018, this was still BDT৳76.54 billion (US$911 million) less than the annual costs attributable to tobacco use. Tobacco therefore results in a net loss to the Bangladeshi economy.1011

Tobacco in Bangladesh

Market share and leading brands

In 2022, market research company Euromonitor International estimated the Bangladeshi tobacco market to be worth nearly BDT৳420 billion – over US$4.5 billion.1213

British American Tobacco Bangladesh (BATB) dominates the Bangladeshi tobacco market, with a market share of over 84.5% in 2022.14 Its portfolio includes the three bestselling brands of cigarette in the country: Royal, Derby and Hollywood.15 The Bangladeshi state holds a stake of more than 9% in BATB, both directly, and through two state-owned assets.4

BATB’s closest competitor is Japan Tobacco International (JTI), which has a market share of over 9% following its 2018 acquisition of the United Dhaka Tobacco Company Limited (UDTCL), the tobacco business of the Akij Group conglomerate.141617 Its leading brands are Sheikh and Navy.15

Smaller domestic companies include Abul Khair Tobacco Company, Alpha Tobacco Manufacturing Company and Nasir Tobacco Industries Ltd.18

Smokeless tobacco and bidis

Accurate, up-to-date information on the SLT industry in Bangladesh is scarce. SLT producers are mostly home based and work informally, which makes for a fragmented market.1920 However, larger companies include Kaus Chemical Works, which sells Hakimpuri Zarda, one of the most popular zarda products (made of dried and boiled tobacco leaves, lime, areca nut, additives, tannins and spices) in the country; and Baba Al-Tajer Dhaka.192122

Similarly, reliable and up-to-date information about bidi production is not available. However, a 2012 investigation found 117 bidi factories spread throughout the country.23 The leading bidi company in Bangladesh is the Akiz Bidi Company; others include Aziz Bidi, Maya Bidi and Bangla Bidi.24

Tobacco farming

Large-scale tobacco agriculture began in Bangladesh following independence in 1971, when BATB began growing in the greater Rangpur area.25 Today, tobacco is grown throughout the country, with significant tobacco-growing regions including Lalmonirhat, Nilphamari, Kushtia, Manikganj, Tangail, Bandarban and Cox’s Bazar.25

Bangladeshi tobacco production was steady at around 40,000 tonnes annually from the late 1970s until 2009, at which point it began to increase rapidly, peaking at just under 130,000 tonnes in 2019.26 In 2020 Bangladesh declared nearly 86,000 tonnes, making it the 12th largest tobacco producer in the world.2627

Child labour

Human rights organisations have documented child labour in tobacco fields in Bangladesh.28 In 2020, a video report published by Unfairtobacco and Bangladeshi NGO UBINIG showed children missing school in order to help their families with the tobacco harvest.29 Another video report documented the impacts of tobacco farming on Bangladeshi women, including the challenge of combining long hours working on the harvest with domestic tasks; negative health effects, including respiratory problems, fevers, and loss of appetite; as well as poor economic returns.30

In 2016, the Swedish NGO Swedwatch published a report based on research in three leaf cultivation areas which supply BATB.31 It documented widespread child labour and negative impacts on the health and wellbeing of farm labourers, both children and adults.31 It also showed how the use of flawed contracts and uncertain promises contributed to over-indebtedness and trapped many farmers in poverty.31 In response, BAT conducted an internal review which, according to the company, “did not raise any significant concerns and indicated that the report as a whole is not representative of the reality on the ground.”32 A subsequent investigation BAT commissioned to consulting firm DNV GL supported its internal review.33

Bangladeshi bidis feature on the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2022 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.34 It is estimated that at least half of the workforce in the Bangladeshi bidi industry is aged between 4 and 14; average wages are between US$0.77 and US$1.57 per day.24 A 2012 investigation found that most bidi workers were women and children.23 According to several workers, managers and people in communities around the bidi factories surveyed, this is because their labour is much cheaper and they are less capable of organising for higher wages or better working conditions.23

Tobacco and the economy

Bangladesh is a net exporter of tobacco. In 2015, the last year for which data is currently available from UN Comtrade (as of September 2023), Bangladesh exported US$43.5 million in raw tobacco, compared to just over US$8 million in imports.3536 However, it is a net importer of factory-made cigarettes. The same year, it imported over US$3 million in cigarettes, compared to just over US$354,000 in exports.3738

Illicit trade

A World Bank report published in 2019 found that Bangladesh had a low estimated incidence of illicit trade in cigarettes (2%), compared to estimated global rates of 10-12%.39 According to the report, annual revenue losses from the illicit cigarette trade are about US$100 million, around 4% of total tobacco revenues.39 Bangladesh has strong legal and institutional structures to combat illicit trade, including a cigarette stamp and banderol system to ensure compliance with taxation, robust law enforcement and stiff penalties for smuggling.39

Though the illicit bidi trade is likely to be larger than that for cigarettes, revenue loss has so far been low given that bidis were barely taxed at all until recently.39 The illicit trade in smokeless tobacco is also likely to be significant, though in the absence of any track and trace system or even tax stamps on SLT products, it is impossible to estimate the illicit share of the SLT market accurately.19 A 2022 study found that “Almost all ST [smokeless tobacco] products bought in Bangladesh (…) were non-compliant with the local packaging requirements and hence potentially illicit”.19

Tobacco and the environment

A 2020 study found various forms of contamination due to tobacco growing in Bangladesh, both in the soil and in nearby water sources. The most important parameter found to be significantly higher in tobacco-growing land was the pesticide aldicarb.27 Classified as “extremely hazardous” by the WHO, this chemical is banned in 125 countries, though its use remains widespread.40 The same study calculated the environmental cost of tobacco curing (due to carbon emissions) at US$310 per acre used for tobacco cultivation.27

Another report stated that contamination of water and soil by tobacco farming is endangering the livelihoods of nearly 800,000 people in the Bandarban and Cox’s Bazar districts who depend on the Matamuhuri river for fishing and cultivation of food crops.41 Swedwatch also documented deforestation and forest degradation linked to farms in Bandarban and Chakoria which supply BATB.31 It alleged that BATB has contributed to these problems by failing to prevent sourcing of fuel wood from natural forests and by supporting the construction of kilns in forest areas.31

Roadmap to Tobacco Control

Bangladesh was the first country to sign the WHO FCTC on 16 June 2003.42 It ratified the treaty a year later.43 However, it has not signed the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products.44

The Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) Act (2005) is the principal law governing tobacco control in Bangladesh. The Act is comprehensive and covers smokefree spaces; tobacco advertising; the sale of tobacco to and by minors; and the packaging and labelling of tobacco products, among other areas.45 However, the law had some major limitations. For example, it mandated only textual health warnings on smoked tobacco products, which is problematic in Bangladesh given the popularity of smokeless tobacco.46 Similarly, although it banned advertising of tobacco products, it did not comprehensively cover sponsorship.46

The Act was amended in 2013 and implementation rules were introduced in 2015, increasing compliance with the WHO FCTC. However, the industry was given a 12-month transition period to fully comply.46 Even then, industry interference – principally by British American Tobacco Bangladesh (BATB) – has succeeded in delaying full implementation of the Amendment.46 For example, though the Amendment mandated graphic health warnings (GHWs) on the upper half of all tobacco packaging, as of May 2022 – over seven years since the implementation rules were first published in the country’s official gazette – GHWs were still printed on the lower half of tobacco products.46 Though this is considered a complete measure by the WHO, it means that the GHWs may be less visible to many Bangladeshi consumers. This is because tobacco products are often sold by mobile sellers out of steel trays which cover the lower half of the products.46

Other major loopholes remain. Designated smoking areas are still permitted in certain public places; there are no restrictions on the sale of individual cigarettes (single sticks), small packets of cigarettes, or tobacco products via the internet; and there are no restrictions on use, advertising, promotion and sponsorship, or packaging and labelling of e-cigarettes.45

However, as of June 2022, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) was preparing a new amendment to the Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) Act, which contains a number of global best practices.47 If passed, it would eliminate designated smoking areas; ban corporate social responsibility (CSR) by tobacco companies; ban the sale of single sticks; ban the display of tobacco products at points of sale; and increase the size of graphic health warnings (GHWs) on tobacco products from 50% to 90%.47 It also aims to ban the sale of e-cigarettes.47

In 2015, the Bangladeshi government began to levy a 1% Health Development Surcharge (HDS) on all tobacco products, which brings in around US$71 million a year, designed to support key government health initiatives including tobacco control.48 However, this funding has not always been easily accessible to the MoHFW. As of March 2021, the National Tobacco Control Cell (NTCC), which sits within the MoHFW, was working on a long-term tobacco control programme which would have smoother access to HDS funding.48

For more details, please see the following websites:

Tobacco Industry Interference in Bangladesh

Recent tobacco industry tactics in Bangladesh include direct lobbying of civil servants, which successfully obtained an exemption to lockdown restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic; using diplomats to lobby in its interests; and the mobilisation of third-party organisations against tobacco control.

Influencing policy: conflicts of interest

According to a study published in 2022, no measures have been adopted to implement Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC in Bangladesh.3 The tobacco industry continues to influence policymaking, particularly BATB, in which the government holds a share of over 9%.34

Case study: COVID-19 lockdown exemptions for BATB and JTI

In April 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19, the then Secretary at the Ministry of Industries (MoI) received a letter from the managing director of BATB, complaining of disruption to its operations by local authorities and law enforcement.49 Requesting permission to continue business as usual, the letter cited a law from 1956 defining cigarettes as “an essential commodity” – 15 years before Bangladesh even existed as an independent country, and when knowledge on the harms of tobacco was much less advanced.49350 It also emphasized BATB’s tax contributions, and concluded by urging the Secretary to “facilitate our effort to ensure uninterrupted flow of revenue in the government exchequer” (the emphasis is included in the original).49

Two days later, the Secretary received another letter from the managing director at the United Dhaka Tobacco Company Limited (UDTCL), JTI’s Bangladeshi subsidiary.50 Like the BATB letter, it emphasized UDTCL’s contribution to the Bangladeshi economy; complained of disruption to its operations; and, citing the 1956 law, argued that cigarettes were an essential commodity which should be permitted to circulate freely.51

The Secretary forwarded each letter to the relevant authorities the day after they were received, instructing officials to permit normal operations of BATB and UDTCL during lockdown.3 This drew widespread condemnation from tobacco control advocates and prompted the Coordinator of the NTCC to issue a letter to the MoI requesting not only the cancellation of the exemptions granted to the tobacco companies, but a temporary ban on tobacco production and sale during the COVID-19 outbreak.50

The MoI turned down the request, following a virtual meeting between officials from the MoI, the Ministry of Commerce, the National Board of Revenue (NBR) and the Prime Minister’s Office.52 The reason given was that the government could not afford to lose tobacco industry tax revenue, particularly during lockdown.503 This illustrates how industry arguments about the tobacco industry’s economic importance were accepted by senior Bangladeshi officials, even during an outbreak of a lethal respiratory disease to which smokers are more vulnerable.353

This incident also demonstrates how much the tobacco industry (particularly BATB) is connected with government in Bangladesh.3 The Secretary at the MoI, who granted the lockdown exemptions to BATB and UDTCL, simultaneously had a seat on the BATB board as a non-executive director.3 This arrangement between the MoI and BATB appears to date back to at least 2010.54

Several other senior civil servants also sit as independent or non-executive members on the BATB board, including a secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office.55565754

A study published in 2022 stressed that the presence of senior government officials on the BATB board leads both to individual and institutional conflicts of interest.3 However, a former Secretary at the MoI has denied this, stating that tobacco control is not discussed at BATB board meetings.58

In July 2022, a “policy dialogue” event – widely reported in the press – was held at a five-star hotel in Dhaka by the Intellectual Property Association of Bangladesh (IPAB), at which speakers criticised a proposed amendment to Bangladesh’s main tobacco control law by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW).59 As of August 2023, IPAB’s Executive Committee included three government officials and a “Senior Partner & Advocate” from the Supreme Court, alongside two members who also held senior positions at BATB.606162

The same month, IPAB listed BATB among its corporate members, from which it acknowledged receiving “extensive support”.63

Influencing policy: lobbying by diplomats

There have also been cases of lobbying of Bangladeshi authorities by foreign diplomats on behalf of the two main transnational tobacco companies operating in the country. In 2017, the British High Commissioner in Bangladesh intervened on behalf of BATB in a tax dispute between BATB and the NBR. Similarly, in 2021, the Japanese Ambassador sent a letter to the Bangladeshi Finance Minister criticising tax reforms which had impacted JTI, as well as restrictions on the marketing and sale of certain JTI products. The letter also complained of “anti-competitive” behaviour, alluding to BATB’s domination of the Bangladeshi tobacco market.

Use of third parties

In June 2022, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) published another draft amendment to the Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) Act (2005) – Bangladesh’s main tobacco control law – and asked for input from relevant stakeholders (see section Roadmap to Tobacco Control).64

In response, the MoHFW received letters criticising the amendment from various trade associations, including the Federation of Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industries (FBCCI) and the Foreign Investors’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), both of which have tobacco industry links.6566

FICCI, for example, lists BATB, Philip Morris Bangladesh and United Dhaka Tobacco Company Ltd (UDTCL) as member organisations.59676869 It also includes tobacco industry executives on its board of directors, including the managing director of UDTCL, author of the letter to the Ministry of Industries requesting an exemption from COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 (see Influencing policy: conflicts of interest).5170

A 2018 investigation by the public health NGO PROGGA concluded that BATB’s infiltration of influential business and trade organisations constituted a major barrier to greater tobacco control in Bangladesh.71

  • For more information on business organisations in Bangladesh and neighbouring countries see Trade Associations.

Relevant Links

Tobacco Tactics Resources

TCRG Research

For a comprehensive list of all TCRG publications, including research that evaluates the impact of public health policy, go to TCRG publications.

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References

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