As India struggles to check tobacco use and the losses it inflicts, tobacco firms up the ante
There are a zillion secret reasons why people start on the one habit that has not even a single benefit, worsens their health from the very first day, uglifies their teeth and makes them smell unbearably foul, and what’s worse, is a major cause of cancer. We are speaking, of course, of smoking or otherwise ingesting tobacco. (Even alcohol in strict moderation is supposed to be good for the heart.) The real reasons people start taking tobacco are secret because, after all, who will confess to taking up smoking because some actor, writer, or celeb looked cool with a cigarette, some mirror made them look suitably rebellious, some tobacco-glamorising ad judo-tricked their mind, or some friends made them feel left out without the smoky halo or the jaw working away on something chewy or granular? Once they start on tobacco, however, users are bound to it by the nearly unbreakable chain of chemistry and physiology. The majority of those who begin remain users for the rest of their lives. “You don’t quit cigarettes, they quit you one day,” as Sumitra Hooda Pednekar puts it.
The weed that conquistadors and explorers first saw Native Americans smoking has since built mercantile and colonial empires on the basis of that addictive power. The state, in every form, has profited from it over four or five centuries; equally, corporates have acquired financial might and political clout on the strength of tobacco. While this was ignored or condoned till the early decades of the twentieth century, once the health risks of tobacco use became established, tobacco companies have deployed insidious means to keep their products desirable and in sale. They are known to fund political parties and politicians, they are known to influence policy and taxation, they are known to bend every rule or find a way past it, whether it comes to advertising bans, pictorial warnings, free sampling or tax slabs. As countries in the West clamp down on tobacco and educated populations wake up to the dangers of tobacco use, international tobacco giants have turned their attention to the developing world, especially the emerging economies, in their quest for enriching markets. As anti-tobacco campaigners and enforcement authorities labour to curb tobacco use, they find themselves up against the formidable financial clout, alarming strategies, and insidious tactics of tobacco companies.
The battle is playing out in India too. Some international tobacco giants have their targets pretty well defined. Responding in a cold and professional manner to the steady increase in anti-tobacco measures in certain countries, they have readied blueprints to target youth, and to counter the work of voluntary groups working against tobacco. Special mention is made, in at least one company’s blueprint, of tactics to trip up groups involved in anti-tobacco policy advocacy. At the political level, these behemoths are working to gain political influence – bribes are not mentioned, of course, but it’s well known they are given at the enforcement level and that top authorities cannot keep their positions without their nod. They are also trying to present a larger ‘public interest’ aspect – whatever that means – to the issue. Rich tobacco farmers’ groups and beedi and gutka millionaires are also at work, trying to present the issue as one of the small farmer being robbed of a livelihood. They claim that tobacco farmers should also have a say in policy-making on tobacco. It won’t be surprising if these noise-makers and poster-mongers are found to be in the pay of the very foreign tobacco firms they claim to be opposing. Yes, the logic is a bit weird, but these farmers groups have insinuated that anti-tobacco groups are in fact working against the poor tobacco farmer and for foreign tobacco companies!
Against such an assault from the pro-tobacco lobby, what is the Indian government doing? On the one hand, it makes no bones about its intention to check the use of tobacco. Since the 1990s, a series of measures have been introduced – a ban on advertising tobacco products, ban on smoking in public places, pictorial warnings on cigarette packs that are no longer a joke, health-risk warnings in films in which people are shown smoking or using tobacco. But enforcement at ground level is lax. Also, as the PIL by the gutsy Sumitra Hooda Pednekar and others shows, different wings of the government work at cross-purposes: while the health ministry pants in the Sisyphean exertions of trying to reduce the use of tobacco and totting up the overall national loss in lives and productivity from tobacco use, the finance ministry has public-sector insurance companies investing in highly profitable tobacco firms and justifying it as purely business decisions. Our cover package takes up these issues in detail.
Meanwhile, two thoughts. It is through the power of association that people are usually drawn to the tobacco habit. Why hasn’t the government effectively harnessed its power to keep people off? From early years in school, effective audio-visual campaigns, using graphic material under expert guidance, repeated over the years in school and college might reinforce the idea that tobacco, like drugs, is not a good habit after all – even though a cigarette dangling in the corner of the mouth might seem uber-cool. And where are the government-run clinics to help people quit? In many western countries, life and healthcare insurers pay for or subsidise such treatment. Perhaps it would be a bit too much to expect Indian insurers to do so: after all, they invest in tobacco firms!
(The article appears in the August 1-15, 2017 issue of Governance Now)