Higher tax on tobacco can save millions of lives

Higher tax on tobacco can save millions of lives

More than 51 million Indians could have been saved from tobacco deaths, had the Centre imposed a stricter excise duty on tobacco products, public health researchers have claimed.

Analysing tobacco consumption trends, they found South Asia with a population of 1.1 billion adults, has about 170 million adult smokers — mostly men from India. The rates of tobacco cessation are very low and happens in India only after contracting a disease.

The researchers estimated 24% Indian men and 3% women smoke. In absolute terms, there were an estimated 107 million men and 13 million women smokers in India in 2010.

Calculating the future trends, they found that 96 million men and 5 million women (0-34 years age group) may take up smoking in the years to come.

Out of these estimated 221 million smokers, close to 51 million are unlikely to survive, said public health researcher Prabhat Jha, from the University of Toronto, who carried out the Million Death Study in India analysing the death patterns. Most of these deaths would happen around 2050 for those who are over 35.

For the younger lot, the deaths may come any time between 2050-2070. Notwithstanding the health hazards, the excise taxes are too low to deter people from picking up the habit.

“Annual increases in tobacco tax have mostly been below the rate of inflation and income growth, so cigarettes remain affordable. In fact, the stock price of the cigarette industry has risen after ineffective February 2017 budget in India, which increased cigarette taxes by well below the rate of income growth,” Jha said. His analysis has been published in the British Medical Journal on Tuesday.

Industry’s opposition

The excise taxes are less due to the opposition from the tobacco industry because of the profit margins. Also, the bidi packets are subjected to much lower taxation because of a differential law.

Asked to quantify the differences between a cigarette and a bidi smoker, Jha told DH, “Men cigarette smokers lose 10 years of life, bidi smokers lose 6 years.” The World Health Organisation recommends the excise tobacco tax should form 75% of the final retail price.

The findings come at a time when the Union health ministry is pushing for the maximum tax rate for tobacco products under the new GST regime.

“The best solution would be a big Rs 6 tax on all length of cigarettes. This plus the 28% GST would roughly triple the excise, halve consumption and double the revenue,” he added.

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