Save human lives and not the tobacco industry

tobaccoKudos to Justice Amar Saran and Justice Anuraag Kumar of the Allahabad High Court for issuing strong warnings to the Uttar Pradesh government to ban gutkha (paan masala mixed with tobacco), on a public interest litigation filed by the Indian Dental Association, in the light of the provisions of the Food Safety and Standards Act.

The Court also expressed its displeasure over the delay and the frequent change in the stand of the state government on this issue.
It was only due to the firm stand taken by the Court that the Uttar Pradesh government has agreed to ban the manufacturing, sale and distribution of gutkha in accordance with the Regulation 2.4.3 of the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 notified for implementation from August 5, 2011 by the Government Of India which states: ‘Tobacco and nicotine shall not be used as ingredients in any food products’.
The Supreme Court had clarified that ‘since pan masala, gutkha or supari are eaten for taste and nourishment, they are all food within the meaning of Section 2(v) of the Act.’
However, this much delayed order will come into effect in UP only from April 1, 2013 as our young and dynamic Chief Minister Sri Akhilesh Yadav wants to help the workers of the industry by giving them six months’ time to find alternative employment and occupation.
This concern reads more like a statement of the gutkha lobby which has time and again made its hapless employees a shield to fight against civil society efforts for tobacco control.
Akhileshji too seems to have played into the powerful hands of the gutkha industry by giving it enough time to sell off its existing stock of this hazardous substance. Earlier also the UP government had dilly dallied enough even after receiving three letters sent by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare between May-August 2012 directing it to prohibit the sale and distribution of gutkha.
Instead of putting a ban on the manufacture and sale on gutkha, the UP government, in August, had lowered the entry tax to facilitate increased sale of the product.
Perhaps the greed for filling the state coffers with the revenue earnings from gutkha overpowers the human duty of the government to save lives from this lethal attraction. Reportedly, in 2011-12 the sale of gutkha in UP fetched over Rs 200 crore in tax, while paan masala sales added another Rs 32 crores to its kitty. But the expenditure by the government health services on treating tobacco related diseases was bound to be much higher.
One also wonders if the Honourable Chief Minister realizes that it is incumbent upon the state government to protect the health of its citizens by taking appropriate measures.
Does he care as much for the families and lives of 328 lakh men and women above the age of 15 years who consume smokeless forms of tobacco with nearly 41.5% or 136.21 lakhs of them consuming gutkha and thus sitting on a veritable landmine of oral cancer?
According to a newspaper report, some 2.5 lakh people are suffering from cancer in UP, of which 75,000 are cases of oral and mouth cancer, mainly due to use of chewing tobacco, gutkha and paan masala.
Experts believe that by 2020 the cancer population will swell by 56% with more than 30% of them suffering with oral cancer caused by chewing tobacco. Also, 33% of the patients oral cancer seeking treatment at the Mumbai based Tata Memorial Hospital are from Uttar Pradesh. This adds up to about 12,000 patients per annum from just one hospital.
It is indeed unfortunate that till now only 14 states (Goa, MP, Kerala, Bihar, HP, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Haryana, Delhi, Gujarat, Punjab and Mizoram) – have been able to invoke the law banning the manufacture, sale and consumption of the gutkha.
Perhaps it is the so called small gutkha industry which in collusion with the political class (which in many cases has big stakes in the industry) has been thwarting all tobacco control measures and has tried its level best to hoodwink the authorities into believing that it is a big revenue spinner.
Yet there are a few sane voices in this wilderness of chaos. After banning gutkha, the Goa government has already banned all eating outlets, shops and establishments from storing or selling tobacco products in any form – cigarettes, cigars, beedis, gutkha, and hookah. Likewise, the Delhi government is also contemplating a ban on chewing tobacco.
The government has clarified that the anti-tobacco warnings will have to be displayed in 40% of the frontal displayed area of the tobacco/cigarette packs with the word ‘Warning’ printed in red colour along with the messages-Smoking Kills and Tobacco Kills.
It remains to be seen if the government will stick to its mandate strictly or succumb to the pressures of the tobacco lobby as has often happened in the past when these warnings have been repeatedly diluted and/or delayed due to vested interests.
As per the Framework Convention on Tobacco Treaty (which India has ratified), the pictorial warnings should be rotated at least once every year, and the new set should have come into force from December 2012, which India has failed to abide by.
It is high time our politicians and citizens chose life over tobacco. -CNS

Shobha Shukla

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