The Smokeless Tobacco Association, the All India Kattha Factories Association and the Central Arecanut and Cocoa Marketing and Processing Co-operative Ltd have suddenly assumed the responsibility to inform people about the relative merits of gutkha over cigarettes. Their bold and blatant advertisement splashed in prominent newspapers is part of a country-wide campaign in an apparent retaliation to the ban on gutkha (tobacco laced pan masala), currently effective in 14 states of India. It wickedly accuses the 14 states of treating cigarettes to be beneficial for health and. The advertisement questions if it is just and fair to ban gutkha and not cigarettes, and reads that:--(i) one pouch of gutkha contains 0.2gm of tobacco as opposed to 0.63gm of tobacco in one cigarette; (ii) cigarette has 4000 chemicals while smokeless tobacco has 3000 chemical; (iii) cigarette smoke affects the health of non-smokers while gutkha does not; (iv) ban on gutkha will render lakhs of shopkeepers and farmers without a livelihood.
But the apprehensions and accusations of this self-proclaimed small (?) lobby are maliciously and deliberately misleading. They are actually challenging a Central government regulation, banning sale of tobacco and nicotine laced food products, which has been in place for more than one year now. Just as a gentle reminder to all of us (including the gutkha manufacturers), the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, a statutory body under the Union Health Ministry, had issued Regulation 2.4.3 of The Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA) 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 further 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.”
This Act has got nothing to do with the harmful effects of tobacco on health—it only disallows any nicotine/tobacco laced product to be sold under the banner of a food product. So if gutkha had not been sold as a food product, it would not come under the purview of this Act. All these years the gutkha manufacturers have reaped the benefits of enticing an ever increasing number of consumers to their nicotine laced products sold under the garb of mouth fresheners. But now when they are being asked to peddle poison in the name of poison alone, and not camouflaged as a dietary add on, they are feeling threatened. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing they talk of the effect of this Act on the livelihood of thousands of people engaged in the industry, rather than help in creating other viable employment avenues for them. Also, they are happily forgetting about the havoc their products have been wreaking on millions of consumers and their families.
As of now, this new regulation of FSSA seems to be too weak even when enforced properly, and already there is news of gutkha manufacturers having found out dubious means to circumvent it. Many brands in Delhi and elsewhere are selling pan masala and tobacco as a duo in two different pouches which can be mixed together and consumed. So it is unlikely that consumption of tobacco will go down in those already hooked on to gutkha. Neither are they likely to switch over to cigarettes. It seems that they would continue enjoying their daily dose, albeit with a slight change in the consumption style. Of course, as the process of mixing two products (rather than have a readymade mixture) is a little more cumbersome, it might deter new young entrants and perhaps female consumers--some relief indeed. To reduce the number of tobacco users it is imperative to take steps to deter neophytes from joining the bandwagon of tobacco users and also to help the current addicts to quit, rather than encouraging them to switch over from one lethal from of tobacco to another. What we essentially need are quality tobacco cessation clinics to be integrated within the existing healthcare setup by training the healthcare professionals to provide cessation facilities.
Of course it is good that the Smokeless Tobacco manufacturers have done a Samaritan’s job by reminding the public that gutkha contains a sizeable amount of tobacco as well as a large number of harmful chemicals. The Citizen News Service (CNS) believes that as there is no safe level of tobacco, the best thing would be to ban all forms of consumable tobacco products—smoking and chewable. Till the evil of tobacco is not eradicated altogether we can at least try to reduce its consumption by (i) discouraging people to buy it, through innovative advocacy campaigns, strong pictorial and text warnings, and anti-tobacco endorsements by celebrities; (ii) making it unaffordable for the consumers by increasing the prices of chewing tobacco, cigarettes and bidis; (iii) making it difficult for people to indulge in their addiction by strictly enforcing the existing anti-tobacco/smoking laws and bringing in more regulations; helping people to quit through easy accessibility of quality cessation facilities; and, above all, by not bowing to the pressure tactics of the powerful tobacco industry and not allowing it to play havoc with the health of the nation through misleading advertisements and false propagandas of their so called social responsibility activities. (CNS)
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She received her editing training in Singapore, has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also authored a book on childhood TB (2012), co-authored a book (translated in three languages) "Voices from the field on childhood pneumonia" and a report on Hepatitis C and HIV treatment access issues in 2011. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: http://www.citizen-news.org)