Tobacco: Ban this agent of death

"For he on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise" sang an 18th century poet who composed his masterpiece after experiencing a strange hallucination under the influence of opium. His poem, which remained unfinished when a visitor disturbed his "vision", is a typical example of addiction. Today's addicts may end up with diseases, instead of leaving great poetry for posterity. Blowing smoke rings into the air resulted in literary masterpieces in the case of TP Kailasam. In others, it may only result in a heart attack or, worse, deadly lung cancer. With its cocktail of chemicals, including arsenic, tobacco is the most addictive of all addictions, ruining families and societies. Smoked, inhaled, chewed, sniffed or dipped, it is the gateway to disease and death. It has been described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as "the single, greatest preventable cause of death."

It is, therefore, highly commendable that the Consortium for Tobacco-Free Karnataka has urged political parties in the state to include tobacco control measures in their election manifestoes. Dr Vishal Rao, a cancer surgeon and member of the consortium, has rightly said "your simple action can save more lives which even a doctor cannot do."

If other states followed similar campaigns, tobacco-related ailments may considerably reduce. When we are willing to use 25% of precious land in the country for the cultivation of this weed -- land that could be used to grow more food - we have not progressed from colonial times when tea and tobacco took precedence in agriculture over life-giving rice and millets. Recent studies shockingly reveal that tobacco products are cheaper in India than food items. Besides, the same starving children are exposed to the hazards of tobacco from a young age when they are made to work long hours on tobacco farms. Their contact with nicotine when they handle wet leaves make them potential victims of various forms of cancer. These are ills that governments can prevent, but don't.

The reason is not far to seek. Independent India has much to gain from rich tobacco companies. The British left our shores 70 years ago. But the "imperial" hand-rolled cigar culture still haunts us. What an irony that while the use of tobacco has declined considerably in developed countries, they are rising in significant numbers in India and other developing ones. This is not surprising when governments pamper corporate houses like ITC which, even today, sells more than 80% of the cigarettes smoked in India. What's more, it has been granted permission to do online sales now, targeting the younger generation. This exposes the government's false concern to save them from the hazards of smoking.

What the central government has failed to realise is the tremendous economic harm that tobacco consumption will do to the country. Pulmonary and cardiac diseases, strokes and various forms of cancer not only kill and debilitate individuals, they ruin families, drive them to abject poverty, besides creating an entire population of sick citizens who contribute nothing but, on the other hand, drain public resources like medicines, hospitals and public healthcare facilities. Realising this, developed countries have spared no measure to fight the war against tobacco. They have adopted the most effective measures, like raising taxes on its production and sale. Whereas in India, even the slightest increase in taxes raises a hue and cry among the producers and users of the killer weed. Raising taxes against their "legal cigarettes" will encourage smuggling and the import of foreign brands, argue cigarette companies. Their strange logic that Indian brands will consequently get killed reveals a mindset that is oblivious to public health concerns.

In this context, the Bill Gates Foundation recommendation, supported by WHO, is worth a thought: "If India increases its tax on bidis from 9% to 40% per 1,000 sticks (this country has more beedi users than cigarette smokers), and on cigarettes from Rs 659 to Rs 3,691 per 1,000 sticks, 18 million lives will be saved."

18 million lives! Which means that tobacco corporates, their suppliers, distributors, retailers and promoters have blood on their hands. If the central and state governments in this country do not heed such warnings, it only gives the lie to all other measures they profess to adopt to curb the use of tobacco and which have obviously failed.

The WHO Convention on Tobacco Control was a great achievement. But, as it has rightly pointed out, "without significant tobacco taxation, cigarettes will remain affordable to the world's billion-plus smokers," thus reversing the progress made on all other fronts.

If the central and state governments truly wish to eradicate this scourge which ruins and destroys lives, they should walk their talk about eradicating the tobacco habit among future generations at least.

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