The 14th World Conference on Tobacco or Health (WCTOH) got an official kick start on the 8th of March, at the National Centre Of Performing Arts in Mumbai. The programme started with the typical Indian invocation to Lord Ganesha and goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati (may be in keeping with the International Women’s Day), to help make the conference a success for ‘more things are wrought by prayers than this world can ever dream of’. In his inaugural address, the Honourable Governor of Maharashtra, Mr SC Jamir called for specific corrective measures to save the people, especially the youngsters, from the perils of tobacco. He lamented the fact that 90% of all oral cancer cases in South East Asia are linked to tobacco consumption.
The problem is more complex in India, where tobacco is consumed not only in the form of cigarettes, but also as chewing tobacco, gutkha, paan masala, etc. It is sometimes argued by vested interests that tobacco industry provides employment to many people. But the fact is that these people always remain poor and also suffer from various diseases arising out of tobacco handling. The only ones to benefit from it are the tobacco multinationals. These companies target young men and women and lure them to smoke more and more cigarettes, driving them closer to death and disease. So it is high time that some strong measures are taken against them. The Governor appealed to sports organizations not to accept any sponsorships from tobacco companies.
Remembering the anti tobacco campaigns of his youth, he favoured the novel idea of forming ‘Temperance Committees’ in schools and colleges, which should deal with the negative aspects of, not only smoking, but other behavioral aberrations too. Smoking, drinking alcohol, speaking nasty words, eating and sleeping too much—all these contribute to a poor physical and mental health. He felt that the ‘Thou Shalt Not Do This’ diktat is bound to make the youngsters retaliate by doing ‘It’ still more. So it is better to say, ‘Yield Not To Temptation’.
The Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss, in his characteristic style, felt proud that India was one of the first countries in the world to ban smoking inside airplanes. He lauded the country’s preventive health initiatives of banning smoking in public places and restricting the sale of tobacco products as positive steps in the right direction. But what is rightly required is voluntary compliance of such laws and not just the fear of fines. He blamed the tobacco industry for stalling other legislative curbs on tobacco due to their strong political/non political lobbying. As 40% of all our health problems are tobacco related and as more and more youngsters are taking to tobacco, he thought it imperative to scare the hell out of our teenagers as far as tobacco use in any form was concerned. Tobacco and alcohol are like a double jeopardy for them.
Dr. Ramadoss also wanted the film industry to behave in a more socially responsive way, by not glamorizing smoking on screen. In the past, generally villains were shown smoking, but now most of these scenes are filmed on heroes--- who are venerated as role models by our glamour hungry teenagers. So the emulate them without blinking an eyelid. In fact, one study revealed that 52% of the child-smokers had their first puff after seeing their heroes smoke on the screen. He rued the fact that a silent majority of 85% (who are against smoking) is being systematically overpowered by the noisy minority of the tobacco industrialists.
Mark Twain had once said, ‘India is the one land that all men desire to see’. It is this land which today has the world’s largest child population of 400 million below 18 years of age. A large percentage of them are under privileged and well into the trade of buying as well as selling tobacco. Very often they are initiated into this habit by being given free samples of paan masala and gutkha. Salaam Bombay Foundation, one of the hosts of the 14th WCTOH which is headed by Padmini Somani, has impacted the lives of 1.8 million such children in a very positive way.
This conference, which has more than 2000 delegates from over 130 countries, needs to succeed to drive back the noisy minority of death peddlers. A collective spirit of the people is needed to shape actions and take decisions for a better future for our children so that they do not get lost in smoke.
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and also teaches physics at Loreto Convent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)