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Stubbing out the habit

Surajeet Das Gupta | May 31, 2003

Here is a statutory warning. Your favourite neighbourhood paan and tobacco shop may soon be forced to shut down permanently.

Why's that? Because Parliament has just pushed through the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Bill (the rules haven't been framed yet) and it has thrown in a contentious clause that prohibits the sale of tobacco products within a radius of 100 yards around any educational institution.

If that's implemented strictly almost every retail outlet which sells cigarettes or bidis in cities like Mumbai and Delhi will be forced to shut down.

The controversial clause has already created a furore in the embattled tobacco industry.

Says an agitated Amit Sarkar, director, Tobacco Institute of India, an association of cigarette manufacturers: "What it means is that you cannot sell any tobacco product within a 6.5 acre distance around any educational institution. That covers 80 per cent of the 4 million such retailers and virtually every retailer in metro cities. It is impractical and virtually impossible to implement."

Whether he is right or not, it's clear that cigarette manufacturers are on the defensive once again. The contentious bill comes alongside another significant step in the battle against smoking.

Last week, India signed a framework agreement sponsored by the World Health Organisation on tobacco control.

The agreement came after a special convention of the World Health Assembly (which has members from 192 countries) in Geneva where health ministers across the world finally agreed to stringent guidelines on tobacco usage.

The agreement came after debates that have stretched on for the last four years.

But the tobacco bill back home imposes tough measures. These include:

  • Specifying tar and nicotine levels on packs;
  • An immediate comprehensive ban on advertising. That includes print, TV, radio and hoardings. This will lead to the sudden disappearance of over Rs 300 crore (Rs 3 billion) of advertising revenue;
  • A pictorial warning in the form of a skull and crossbones to make smokers -- particularly younger ones -- think twice before taking a puff.

More importantly, the bill has been extended to a wider range of tobacco products (the earlier draft bill was limited to only cigarettes) and includes bidis and chewing tobacco.

One concession however has been made: smoking in specified public places has been prohibited, but for the first time the bill makes provision for segregated smoking areas in places like airports and restaurants amongst others.

The key question of course, is whether the bill can be implemented and whether it will help to reduce tobacco usage. Opinions are sharply divided depending which side of the fence you are on.

Tobacco manufacturers and growers say that the government is jumping the gun.

Says Praful Patel, MP and bidi manufacturer: "The rules framed are too rigid to implement and I don't think it will help in reducing tobacco usage. Even in the US despite strict monitoring it has taken years for consumption to go down slightly."

Critics of the bill say that the bill will have a score of unintended side effects.

They say it will, for instance, encourage smuggling from other countries because local manufacturers won't be able to advertise and they will be hampered by all the other restrictions.

Says a senior executive of ITC Ltd: "Today contraband is already 10 per cent of the total cigarette market. We think it will go up to 15 per cent as the stringent health warnings which we have to print is not applicable to them."

Tobacco companies insist that all attempts to stop smoking so far have failed.

For instance, several states like Delhi, Goa, Rajasthan and West Bengal have introduced legislation that restricts the sale of tobacco products.

These restricted areas vary from 10 to 100 metres around educational institutions -- but state governments haven't been able to implement the law. Therefore, the tobacco companies say that the new legislation won't change anything.

Then, seven states, including Delhi, Sikkim and Rajasthan have imposed a total ban on advertising but sales haven't fallen.

Says a senior executive of a tobacco company: "The worldwide and Indian example clearly show that banning advertising does not lead to reduction in consumption. It only shifts consumption from high value cigarettes to low end products like bidis and chewing tobacco."

The pro-tobacco lobby also points out that the Geneva agreement gives a five year time frame for countries to impose a comprehensive advertising ban. They say that India is jumping the gun.

Cigarette manufacturers say that the bill is particularly harsh on them.

Says Sarkar: "Eighty-six per cent of tobacco consumption is in non-cigarettes and these are sold in the unpackaged and unorganised sector where the new package rules cannot be implemented. So we will be the only category which will put these new packaging norms. That is not fair."

Worse, they point out non-chewing tobacco, which is becoming increasingly popular, has been left out from the purview of the bill completely.

The bill's supporters say that these worries aren't justified.

Says Dr A K Nag of the Kolkata-based NGO Vivekananda International Health Centre: "The bogey that the bill cannot be implemented is bunkum. Look how the railways have been reasonably successful in over 1,000 platforms over the country where sale is banned. Implementation might take time but is possible."

Adds Taposh Roy of the Delhi-based Voluntary Health Association of India: "The bill is just the first step towards reducing tobacco consumption. It was drafted to ensure that it does not lead to too much turmoil. Everyone knows that it has to be backed by public awareness campaign. Legislation only won't do."

Roy also points out that the fear of contraband is unfounded. He says there's enough evidence to show that international cigarette companies are alleged to be involved in smuggling.

Support for the Indian bill also comes from Association against Smoking and Health (ASH) the international NGO, which has spearheaded the anti-smoking campaign worldwide.

Says Naj Dehlavi, a key member of ASH in the United Kingdom: "India has taken a lead in implementing the Geneva declaration and its fight against reducing tobacco consumption."

It goes without saying that the Government could face political problems as it pushes ahead with strong legislation against tobacco.

The biggest worry could be about tobacco farmers -- who might feel the pressure of falling consumption. Says Patel: "The bidi trade, for instance, has already fallen by 25 per cent and that will adversely effect farmers."

Adds S M Anandharaman, president of the Karnataka Tobacco Growers Forum: "The government is hurrying with the bill but we have no other alternative crop to which we can shift to in a drought prone area and the government is making no efforts to help."

Farmers point out that shifting to alternative crops like cotton, chillies or sugarcane does not make economic sense.

That's because these crops need high investment and lots of water. Most tobacco grows in non-arable land and needs very little water.

For instance, tobacco farmers invest only about Rs 4,000 per acre, but other crops needs as much as Rs 20,000 for cotton and Rs 25,000 for chillies. The returns are, of course, much higher.

Tobacco growers could try to export more. But even here India has lost key markets like Russia where bulk of its tobacco was exported at one time.

Points out Chengal Reddy, chairman, Federation of Farmers Association in Andhra Pradesh: "We earlier used to export 40,000 tonnes of tobacco to Russia, but this entire market has been taken over by China and Brazil. The Chinese government offers subsidies for exporters but we get no help from the government."

The government of course, is aware that the difficulties faced by the farmers could turn into an explosive political issue especially with general elections around the corner.

Health Minster Sushma Swaraj has already declared in Parliament that the government is exploring the possibility of growing alternative crops.

No doubt the groundswell of public opinion against smoking is making its way to India.

But the government, aware of the 35 million farmers who depend on tobacco for their livelihood, has no option but to perform a fine balancing act.

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