Genetically Modified Foods – an Indian prespective
March 31, 2015
Connecting the Dots
May 7, 2015

Tobacco Ban – Situation, implication and effect

Given the recent furor over the tobacco study by a BJP MP, I picked this topic to play the devil’s advocate. I would try to look at it from different viewpoints. Also considering pan masala is often spoken in the same breath as chewing tobacco I’ll be referring to areca nut as well.

India is an interesting country with our unity in diversity; this diversity is also in evidence where tobacco is concerned. Karnataka where arguably the best areca or betel nut is grown to Kashmir where the saffron is grown or from Gujarat where tobacco finds use in cigarettes and bidis to Mumbai-MCX, where areca nut is traded as a commodity. A quick tour around a state like UP looking at people rather than the latest smartphone in your hand would also reveal the various consumption habits and the forms that tobacco is consumed. So the potential billion-dollar question is how to curb the use of tobacco, which is quite evidently a health hazard. Without limiting the discussion to cancer, which so far the general discourse has focused on I’ll also include cardiovascular and respiratory problems that come about as a result of smoking.

So smoking and tobacco use affects your health negatively, as does eating six rasgullas at one sitting, don’t ask me how I know that. Is that reason enough to ban it?

The Economics

The government is frankly clueless about how to tackle this public health issue. While government is rightly worried about its health care expenditure on cancer exceeding the revenues garnered by tobacco companies but that is again looking at half the picture. As an Australian study goes about 40% smoking deaths are due to heart and blood vessel related disease furthermore looking at only the revenue generated by tobacco companies is discounting the revenue generated by allied industries like Packaging, paper, Aluminum foil rolling mills, etc. ITC set up its own packaging unit for their requirement of cigarette boxes.

A quick check of the most famous tobacco company in India ITC shows 25% stake owned by LIC and an undertaking of UTI and including other insurers takes it to over 32%(Source). So those getting their knickers in a twist over government position better carefully check where their insurance premiums go. To play more of a devil’s advocate the IPL commissioner Lalit Modi belongs to the family that sells Marlboro brand cigarettes in India.

A few years ago Indian Asthma Care Society took a chewing tobacco manufacturer to court over the packaging of the sachet not being environmental friendly. Good sense prevailed and the apex court sided with the NGO. But pause and read that statement again. For those who aren’t aware chewing tobacco is a smokeless variety of tobacco and no study links it to asthma. Also the packaging which was plastic had nothing to do with the said objective of the society. Anyway, the fact that after the jurisdiction the entirely domestic dependent (yes, Make in India) packaging industry was largely crippled and forced to rely on importing foil from China further added to the trade deficit with China has nothing to do with my article. (Just trying to point out that small decisions do have significant impact)

The Health Issue

Various studies show tobacco use is detrimental to health in various ways. But there is more than one variety of tobacco that is used in India. Counting the obvious cigarettes, bidis and cigar as one there is a smokeless variety that is further divided into naswaar or snuff, zarda or tobacco leaf, khaini (usually had with lime) and finally gutkha with its inimitable red spit. But broadly separating the two into smokeless and smoking tobacco shall be sufficient. There is hardly any Indian study that differentiates the two. So we are left with the alternative of looking at our western peers. Sweden is a country that allows khaini or snus consumption and has carried out considerable research on the same. It is also the only EU country that has met its WHO goal of reducing cigarette smoking to less than 20% of the adult population. It has actually found that it has lower death rate in men attributed to tobacco compared to the rest of European Union. It shows a direct relation between consumption of snus helping in cessation of smoking. Studies also show that while nicotine levels don’t differ significantly between snus users and smokers, the affect on cardiovascular system is greatly reduced in those using only snus. It has been recommended by scientists that snus can be an alternate nicotine delivery system (Source1) (Source2)

And all this is only considering first hand use. The effect to second hand smokers has not been considered. If you ask me I’d prefer to be in a room of tobacco chewing people rather than tobacco smoking people.

Bear in mind this is a Swedish study and only concerns itself with snus or Filter Khaini. An Indian study needs be undertaken to study the effect on the gutkha eating as well as the naswaar sniffing user to arrive at better understanding and form a better strategy to reduce tobacco consumption.

The Politician Issue

With many MPs coming from traditional betel nut and tobacco grower states the pressure from the farmers is immense and an outright ban damages the livelihood of a significant number of farmers not to mention the various kiosks that spruce up at various corners. Many states have attempted to reduce the cultivation of products involved in manufacture of tobacco via incentivizing farmers to cultivate other products.

The Legal Issue

Tobacco is governed under the COTPA laws drafted and implemented in 2003 and not FSSAI. The most significant difference between the two is jurisdiction. Tobacco falls under the jurisdiction of the Centre as per COTPA while anything under FSSAI like those rasgullas can be regulated by the State.

I don’t need to mention that while many states have banned tobacco andspecifically chewing tobacco the matters are most certainly pending in courtsand the backlog of courts is a topic for another day. And before anyone says gutkha lobby please understand having chunks of money and throwing it at one person in this day and age doesn’t a lobby make. A cigarette lobby though is a different thing.

To conclude I’d just like to say banning it outright would be akin to shooting ourselves in the foot as the implementation of such a ban is difficult to say the least and is only likely to lead to bootlegging and a far more serious consequence of spurious or unregulated production of tobacco. Studies showing reduction in consumption linked to bigger and more hard hitting pictorial advertising are plenty and increasing warning signs while reducing dependence of farmers on tobacco related products is the way to go.

Lastly apart from a certain Mr. Amitabh Bachchan no one else has been able to chew tobacco and rock a cool quotient simultaneously and there I feel the cigarette industry has it won.

Disclaimer:- The views and opinions expressed by the author are personal.
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