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The pomp and ceremony are all extant but the circumstance is starting to rankle. Over the years, the taint of political patronage has essentially robbed the Padma awards of their stature and significance. This year was no different, with celebrities who backed the government on the intolerance debate having the honour of displaying a Padma award on their mantelpiece. Anupam Kher, the most vocally loyal, gets the biggest—a Padma Bhushan and tweets about it being the “biggest day of my life.” There were others who would feature in the political patronage column, but this year’s awards had another serious shocker. Two of the Padma Shri awardees, Ajay Devgn and Priyanka Chopra, may have had careers that qualify them for official benediction but here’s the catch: they both endorse pan masala brands. A Padma for carcinogens? Sounds rather unpalatable.
Devgn (numerology has contracted it from Devgan) is currently seen in a TV commercial popping a mouthful of Vimal pan masala and then smearing rose petals all over a woman’s face. What the connection is nobody can tell but there is certainly a connection between a A-list celebrity promoting a health hazard and getting awards . Then there is Priyanka Chopra who will be presenting an Oscar in Los Angeles later this month. She is the brand ambassador for the DS Group, makers of Rajnigandha, the famous pan masala brand. She has justified it, saying she is only advertising Rajnigandha cardamom (elaichi). The truth is that elaichi is often used as surrogate for both pan masala and zarda sold under the Rajnigandha name—a brand extension. It’s like a star saying they promote Marlboro clothing and not the cigarette. And the fact remains that, regardless of their careers, the govt has seen it fit to award the Padma Shri to people who are endorsing things that are known as socially ostracised categories.
Last month, the Delhi government officially wrote to many stars, including Ajay Devgn, Shah Rukh Khan, Govinda and Saif Ali Khan, not to promote pan masala products as they contain areca nuts, a potential cancer causing agent. “You are the role model for youngsters. They watch you and your lifestyle and habits and try to adopt it. These advertisements attract the vulnerable population,” said the letter from the health department. The only one who responded positively was Sunny Leone, who immediately said she would not sign any more contracts involving ad campaigns for such products. The Advertising Standards Council of India says that, while pan masala and supari are not banned, “the ASCI code does not permit the use of celebrities in advertisements of products which by law require health warning on its pack or cannot be sold to minors.” It considers ads for pan masala to be a surrogate for gutka and advertising for silver coated elaichi the same for pan masala. In almost all lab tests done on pan masala products, a pouch contained as much tobacco as one cigarette. Successive governments have increased the tax on cigarettes in the annual budget, the so-called sin tax. Former health minister Ambumani Ramadoss demanded a 200 per cent tax on tobacco items, a sin tax he could not implement while in office. He did, however, succeed in introducing a smoking ban in 2008 which covered all public places. The Ramadoss effect has resulted in the crass depictions at multiplexes of the effects of smoking, but pan masala has escaped such attention. The fact that the pan masala industry is worth between Rs 15,000 and 2,000 crore may have something to do with it, but it also reflects the kind of money that celebrities earn from endorsing such products. And although Sunny Leone is branded an ex-porn star, she is the only one who has had the sense to accept that what she was endorsing was a potential health hazard and then decided to quit, literally.
Although most gutka users believe that it is an alternative preferable to cigarettes, only 20 per cent of the latter is absorbed via inhalation whereas most of the tobacco in gutka gets in via the oral cavity.