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The next frontier
The ban on gutkha products is hypocrisy; it is high time that the government tackled the cigarette industry head on

Last year in April, we wrote an op-ed requesting the Indian government to ban tobacco; citing statistics that proved how the issue was far more pressing than perceived. We even mentioned how “24% of school-going children and 5 million children under the age of 15 years are addicted to this poison”. However, we have not seen any major policy breakthrough in this regard so far.

A very recent move by 14 state governments to impose a ban on gutkha sales, manufacturing, distribution, transportation, display and storage may be considered as a step ahead towards the reduction of tobacco production by 80% by 2020. However, it has ‘again’ raised questions on the credibility of the government’s intention towards curbing the ultra-strong cigarette lobby. The decision to ban gutkha has received an overwhelming response, but the Smokeless Tobacco Association alleges that “the powerful lobby of cigarette companies” is behind the step-motherly treatment meted out to them.

A recent study published in The Lancet, which is a renowned medical journal, revealed that with 275 million users, India ranks second in terms of tobacco users after China. Another government report says that 26% of India’s population (around 312 million) comprises tobacco-chewers compared to 5.7% and 9.2% cigarette smokers and beedi smokers respectively. India has acquired the shameful tag of being the oral cancer hub of the world. As per the first Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) – India 2010, around 0.9 million tobacco-related deaths occur in India annually as compared to 5.5 million worldwide. So, it becomes extremely necessary to take some action against tobacco industry. But the moot point here is – why should cigarette and beedi escape regulation?

On one hand, 14 state governments have been prompted to ban gutkha and other forms of chewing tobacco products, which are toxic and addictive as per the Food Safety and Standards (Prohibition & Restrictions on Sales) Regulations Act, 2011. Consequently, government officers even decided to raid all gutkha shops and seize products of offending vendors. On the other hand, many reports have exposed that the ban on smoking in public places has had a very little impact. No such drive was executed by the government against sales of cigarettes, which are also being sold within 50 meters of school premises. No state government has taken stringent steps to control that.

In this context, it is well known that powerful lobbying is working in favour of the cigarette industry.

Long back in 2002, former Union Cabinet Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Shatrughan Sinha declared that he had been receiving threatening calls from the tobacco lobby; demanding that he should go slow on placing curbs on tobacco. Later on in 2007, then Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare of the Government of India, Anbumani Ramadoss, who had implemented stringent controls on tobacco and alcohol sales and advertisements to India, stated that 4 CMs and 150 MPs tried to back the tobacco industry. However, he refused to identify any of them.
But he said in reference to introducing grim pictorial warnings on cigarette packets and other tobacco packets that “the powerful lobby is going all out to ensure the warnings don’t appear.” Even our Supreme Court has expressed doubt on the government’s intentions to bring amendments in the Tobacco Control Act in front of a ‘too strong’ tobacco lobby. Moreover, ministers like Veerappa Moily and Pranab Mukherjee have always taken a pro-industry stand as 80% of beedi workers are from their constituencies. To crown it all, a ban on gutkha will only increase the sales of cigarettes.

If the government is calculating the revenue losses from banning cigarettes, which contributes 85% of the revenue from the tobacco industry, they should crosscheck facts. As per reports by the Health Ministry and WHO, the government spent around $5 billion in treatment of tobacco-related diseases compared to the $1.4 billion in revenue they received from the industry in 2002-03. With even business sense going in favor of banning cigarettes, it’s only a matter of someone mustering up enough courage to bell the cat. Now then, who should do the honours? The previous person who tried it, Ramadoss, is now appearing in a Delhi High Court after having been charge-sheeted by the CBI in a graft case.

By:- Amir Hossain

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