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Law On Their Side
The tobacco industry has enough clout and money to secure the support of top politicians-cum-lawyers in courts:
Just about two months back, newspaper readers were taken aback by a series of front-page ads, one of which stated how 14 states had had banned gutka but not cigarettes as they considered the latter “healthy”. It was issued by the Smokeless Tobacco Association (STA) to reinforce its claims of being an unfair victim in the fight against tobacco that, it says, has left the cigarette players unscathed. The truth lies in between, reflecting the many challenges in completely banning tobacco that kills 2,700 Indians a day.
“The STA ads,” says Krishnaraj Rao of the Mumbai-based Voice of Tobacco Victims, “were an attempt to muddy the waters and derive strength from the cigarette lobby.” According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS), 2009-10, India has around 27.4 crore tobacco-users. Of them, 16.37 crore are exclusive users of smokeless or chewing tobacco, 4.23 crore, concurrent users and the remaining 6.9 crore smoke tobacco. Given the significantly large number of users of chewing tobacco, and the ease with which people, including women and children, can start consuming it rather than smoke it, activists say the ban on gutka is only a “low-hanging fruit”. “There is nothing like better tobacco,” says Ashok Chaturvedi, a doctor at Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Centre.
Gutka is the only tobacco product banned so far by 16 states and three UTs, along with pan masala that contains tobacco or nicotine. The ban was ordered not under any anti-tobacco law but under the Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA), 2006, that prohibits tobacco and nicotine in food. (A 2004 Supreme Court order described gutka as ‘food’.) This is why, while gutka may be hard to find, other forms of chewing tobacco—including khaini, zarda and even simple tobacco—are sold openly. And pan masala is sold along with pouches of tobacco. Their sale—including that of bidis and cigarettes—can only be regulated, not banned, under the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA), 2003. BJD MP Baijayant Panda’s recent private member’s bill calling for plain packaging of cigarette and tobacco products is a move in that direction.
The STA has been contesting the description of gutka as ‘food’ as it is also regulated under COTPA. “If any regulation is to be enforced,” the STA noted in a statement, “it should apply equally on cigarettes and all other tobacco products. Failure to do so would only convey a false message to the public regarding the health effects of tobacco consumption and would indeed seriously undermine the government’s tobacco control efforts.” It also argues that the ban on gutka is likely to promote sale of other forms of tobacco, including bidis and cigarettes. Investment advisory firms like Anand Rathi and Edelweiss have begun sending out mailers predicting growth for the cigarette industry, especially for lower-end brands, as former gutka users switch over to them, urging people to invest. It is also where public sector insurance firms have parked their money. Firms like LIC and UTI account for 30.4 per cent of shares of ITC, which earns more than 60 per cent of its revenues (Rs 36,000 crore for 2011-12) from cigarette sales.
An official with the National Tobacco Control Programme (NTCP), who didn’t wish to be named, thinks it’s “speculation” that cigarette manufacturers will benefit from the gutka ban. He says the ban has helped raise gutka prices manifold as it has to be sold illegally, forcing the consumer to “decide between his food and gutka”. The gutka ban, he adds, represents only an incremental progress in tackling tobacco. “In India, it has been around for 400 years and can’t be eradicated in a day or two.” However, most agree that the sale of tobacco products has grown despite NTCP. “The truth is that all laws are made to support the tobacco industry, not the citizens of the country,” says Chaturvedi. The battle against tobacco has only begun and the hurdles are yet to show up.