A toxic nexus

politics and tobacco industry: Political support to tobacco cuts across party lines. MPs and legislators do so to protect their vote banks or their bu

A toxic nexus
The way a parliamentary panel came under the influence of tobacco lobby led by a beedi baron and subverted a key public health measure that could have potentially saved lakhs of lives has once again exposed the nexus between Indian politicians and tobacco industry.

The episode is not an isolated one, but a part of a systematic support to the tobacco industry by politicians as well as the state. It is this nexus which first delayed strong anti-tobacco legislation for decades and has been creating hurdles in its implementation, once the bill was passed.

Pictorial health warnings on tobacco packs are being rolled out under the cigarettes and other tobacco products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, which was originally conceived in 1993, but passed in 2003. Since then, its various provisions are being implemented in phases. At every stage, tobacco lobbies within the parliament and the government are trying to dilute the regulations and delay their implementation. That’s why, despite having one of the toughest anti-tobacco laws in the world which bans smoking in public places and advertising in mass media, India has a rising number of tobacco users.

There were 120 million smokers in 2010, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey. With 10 per cent of the world’s smokers, India is the second largest consumer of tobacco in the world. The burden of tobacco-related illness is huge. While paying lip service to anti-tobacco measures, the government is actually supporting the growth of tobacco industry over the past four decades. Taxpayers’ money is being used to promote tobacco industry through three arms of the central government – Tobacco Board, Directorate of Tobacco Development and the Central Tobacco Research Institute (CTRI).

The government not only defends the tobacco industry, but also  gives away awards to tobacco companies every year for their “performance”. Awardees like ITC, Godfrey Philips, VST, Dhaliwal, Kothari Brothers and Meenakshi Products are actually poster boys of Tobacco Board and the Commerce Ministry. Public-funded institutions like the Tobacco Board and the CTRI are working as de facto arms of private industry, and even conducting market surveys for it. Several other ministries are engaged in supplementing the tobacco promotion drive of the government.

Political support to tobacco cuts across party lines. Members of parliament and state legislators of every hue have opposed strong anti-tobacco measures whenever the Ministry of Health has proposed them. They do so for two reasons – either for protecting their vote banks or their bank balances (business interests).

In the case of BJP MP Shyama Charan Gupta, who opposed pictorial warnings, it is the latter. He owns 10 beedi making units across three states, churning out 1,100 crore beedi sticks a year. For Gupta, larger pictorial warnings are a direct assault on his business. So was the case with beedi baron Praful Patel, who was made a member of the Group of Ministers in 2008 to adjudicate on pictorial warnings.

Other members of this group – Pranab Mukherjee, Jaipal Reddy, Priyaranjan Dasmunshi and Oscar Fernandes – opposed gory pictures to protect their vote banks as constituencies of each of them had a sizeable number of beedi workers. In addition, then health minister A Ramadoss was flooded with letters from Chief Ministers, MPs, leaders of political parties – all pleading against warnings on behalf of tobacco industry. The result of all this was mild and much delayed pictorial warnings.

While trying to defend their political and business interests, MPs and legislators often use the poor as their shield. They say beedi is a poor man’s intoxicant so it should be spared, as if the action of carcinogens depends on income levels. Secondly, they say that it is a livelihood issue because millions of poor work in the beedi industry. Both are myths propagated by vested interests. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that beedi does not increase the risk of oral cancer, tuberculosis, heart disease and other ailments.
Inflated employment figures

Similarly, employment figures touted by the industry and the MPs are highly inflated. Beedi manufacturing employs 4.16 million workers (including women and children who work part-time at home) and accounts for a miniscule 0.74 per cent of total employment in India, according to the national study done by leading public health expert Prabhat Jha. In comparison, textile industry provides direct employment to 35 million workers and cottage industry like hand-loom gives employment to 6.5 million people. Instead of seeking better wages, a healthy work environment and better employment opportunities, our politicians want beedi workers to perpetually remain in penury and ill-health just to protect their own interests.

It is disturbing to see how a public health issue has been hijacked by politicians for their personal gains. They are even questioning a 50-year old science behind adverse health effects of tobacco, while ignoring its health burden. The total economic costs attributable to tobacco use from all diseases in India is estimated to be Rs 104,500 crore, which is several times more than what the central and state governments earn from tobacco revenues.

The debate should focus not on the size of pictorial warnings or statutory warnings in films but on whether India can afford to ignore the impact of tobacco, and the role it is playing in exacerbating the impact of lifestyle diseases like heart disease and cancers.

The first step should be to dismantle all formal structures of state support to tobacco like the Tobacco Board, followed by removal of tobacco businessmen from all parliamentary and legislative panels that deal with health, employment and trade. The hidden nexus between state and non-state actors is dangerous for the health of millions of Indians.
(The writer is New Delhi-based columnist and author)

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