Tobacco Kills: Part 2

Why does the Indian govt give safe passage to the Marlboro Man? Sifting tobacco industry fiction from public health fact.

WrittenBy:Chitra Subramaniam Duella
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How do you package death as life, disease as health and a deadly addiction as the taste of freedom and celebration of life? Ask the tobacco industry and one of its strong allies in India, the government itself. A cigarette is the only consumer product that kills one in two regular users. Tobacco addiction is a communicated disease.

Kicked out of the United States of America and large parts of western Europe, the Marlboro Man and his trail of death and disease have been given safe passage to India. This harbinger of death and disease roams around freely in the country adding 5,700 members daily to his growing Indian family. With 290 million Indians consuming some form of tobacco – cigarette, bidi, gutka, etc – and with politicians like Lalu Prasad Yadav inviting Indians to shun the Western cigarette for the Indian bidi, don’t be surprised if the next brand of khaini – a form of chewing tobacco – is called SampurnaSwaraj. Venkaiah Naidu, also a prominent politician is on the National Tobacco Board. India’s flagship business, economic and tourism promotion vehicle “Incredible India” says the country has emerged as the world’s most dependable producer of tobacco.

Is the government of India doing anything to take on the tobacco industry? The Supreme Court of India doesn’t think so – and in July 2013, reprimanded the government for colluding with the tobacco industry and its lobbyists. “Every day, every moment, people are dying of cancer and it is the Centre which connived with the tobacco lobby by non-appearance of an advocate during the hearing at the Bombay High Court in 2006”, the court said, setting aside an earlier judgment of the Bombay High Court which had suspended guidelines on size and display of messages in local languages that says “tobacco kills” or “tobacco causes cancer”. In other words, a government counsel failed to show up in court in Mumbai for seven years.

Tobacco kills 3,300 Indians daily, almost one million every year. Some 70 lakh jobs are at stake against the health of 27 crore smokers addicted to a killer product. The public health and economic answers are straightforward – tobacco is bad economics and disastrous for public health, but according to the WHO progress has been thwarted by an industry whose tactics constitute the single greatest hurdle to tobacco control. The FCTC process had catalysed a sustained exchange between scientists, economists, policymakers and lawyers which had sifted tobacco industry fiction from public health fact.

On the demand side, the treaty proposed price and tax measures, protection from exposure to second-hand smoke, regulation and disclosure of the content of tobacco products, packaging and labelling, communication and training, comprehensive advertising and promotion bans including sponsorship cessation measures. On the supply side, the treaty proposed elimination of the illicit trade of tobacco products, restriction of sales to minors and most importantly, support for economically viable alternatives for tobacco growers.  It was nobody’s case that tobacco-growing farmers should be deprived of livelihoods. As the Zeltner Committee report showed, tobacco companies constructed these lobbies. In India, for example, bidi workers are kept in abject poverty while few powerful families own large and expanding bidi brands. While one part of the Indian government claims to be actively involved in tobacco control, the submerged part of the iceberg tells another story, says DrChaturvedi. For example:

  • The Ministry of Commerce nurtures the Tobacco Board that promotes the growth of tobacco.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture continues to make tobacco farming lucrative.
  • The Ministry of Finance remains resistant to higher taxation on tobacco (despite recent budget increases and higher levies, tobacco is relatively cheap in India).
  • The Ministry of Home shows virtually no interest in enforcing anti-tobacco legislation.
  • The Ministry of Education does not aggressively enforce laws to promote educational institutions to prevent children from exposure to tobacco advertising and addiction. An estimated 80 percent of tobacco shops do their best business outside schools and educational institutions.
  • The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is sympathetic to the film and television industry that bend laws to suit them rather than the society.
  • Food and Drug authorities have shown extreme tolerance towards violation of the ban on gutka and tobacco containing pan masala. They are also resistant to the idea of recognising the harmful effects of the Betel and Areca nut.

Through insurance companies and banks, the government of India holds an estimated 25 percent of shares in India Tobacco Company (ITC), the country’s biggest cigarette manufacturer. The President of India conferred the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) 2012 Sustainability Award to ITC.  Another Indian industry body proudly boasts of the successes of the Indian tobacco industry worldwide.

There is no publicly available independent documentation of tobacco industry activities in India. The Marlboro Man obviously has carte blanche to kill Indians.

To read part 1 of the series, click here.

The author is writing a book on global tobacco control and India. 

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