What does it fear more – possibility of empty coffers or surety of cancer?

Delhis call to actors to not endorse pan masala is pitifully meagreImage: Tobacco vendor, by Vandana Rajagopalan via Wikimedia Commons
Voices Opinion Tuesday, January 19, 2016 - 08:41

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi has sent a missive to Bollywood actors asking them not to promote pan masala. It appeals to their goodwill to save women and children from falling prey to an addiction that kills regular users of such products, typically through cancer of the mouth and throat.

“You are often seen on TV and other media advertising pan masala products. Even if these pan masalas do not contain tobacco or nicotine, they surely contain areca nuts (supari) and now there is a lot of scientific evidence which prove (sic) that supari causes cancer. Moreover, some of these pan masala advertisements are surrogate advertisements of tobacco products which manufacturing companies try to promote,” Dr. S.K. Arora, Additional Director (Health), Delhi government has written.

Shah Rukh Khan, Ajay Devgan, Saif Ali Khan, Govinda, Sunny Leone, Arbaaz Khan and Govinda are among others who figure in this star cast of pan masala promoters the letter addresses itself to. Any step that speaks to tobacco control is to be welcomed as they are very few and far between.

Whether it's state governments or the central government, action taken against the tobacco lobby has been negligible. Last April, the government of India shot itself in the foot when it stated that there was no India scientific data to establish that tobacco, chewing tobacco and pan masala cause cancer in response to calls for larger warnings including pictorial warnings on the products. Union Minister for Civil Aviation Ashok Gajapathi Raju also got into a snafu with airlines personnel when he was asked to not carry his cigarette lighter on board. The reason why all state governments and the central government walk on egg-shells when it comes to the tobacco and pan masala lobby has nothing to do with public health and its evidence. It has everything to do with revenue.  The jury and scientific evidence on the direct cause and effect link between intake of tobacco – smoking, chewing, snuff etc. – and cancers has been in for at least six decades. In the case of areca nuts – the main ingredient in pan masala – submucous fibrosis leading to cancer is a medical fact. Between evidence and disease comes the powerful pan masala industry in search of newer and younger consumer and future addicts.

The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 2003 (COPTA) is India’ main law governing tobacco control. It is a floor, leaving states to write in stricter laws if they want.

India adds 5,700 new addicts a day and tobacco and pan masala kills 3,300 people daily – the new recruits largely compensating for the deaths in the country and worldwide.  These are the only freely available consumer products that kill one in two regular users. India counts 30 crore people addicted to one or other form of tobacco – from pan masala to gutka to cigarettes.  Stacked against the almost one million annual deaths in India is 70 lakh jobs. Tobacco and its killer cousins are legal products and till such time they remain so, they cannot be banned. It is not uncommon for film stars to perform at weddings and private functions of ministers and other functionaries, courtesy pan masala companies.

And here is the problem. The Ministry of Commerce nurtures the Tobacco Board that promotes the growth of tobacco. The Ministry of Agriculture continues to make tobacco farming lucrative. The Ministry of Finance has raised taxes and higher levies, but the products remain relatively cheap. The Home Ministry is not pre-occupied with enforcing the tobacco control legislation as health is a state subject. The Ministry of Education does not aggresively enforce laws to promote schools and colleges to prevent children from exposure to tobacco advertising and shops that sell pan masala do brisk business outside schools. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is sympahetic to the film and television industry and anti-tobacco and pan masala advertisements in cinema halls is their token salute to the cancer-causing product. Food and Drug authorities have shown extreme tolerance towards violation of the ban on gutka and tobacco containing pan masala. They are also resistant to the idea of recognising the harmful effects of the betel and areca nut.

Through insurance companies and banks, the government of India holds an estimated 25 percent of shares in India Tobacco Company (ITC), the country’s biggest cigarette manufacturer. The President of India conferred the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) 2012 Sustainability Award to ITC.  Another Indian industry body proudly boasts of the successes of the Indian tobacco industry worldwide.

The cry-baby letter to film stars asking them to be better role models is cruelly cute, but it is a start. The next step could be banning of sales of these products in and around all schools in Delhi. Pan masala kills – it should not be advertised or glamourised. The Delhi government needs to put its money where its mouth is by providing a large health budget and other resources to clear the stadium of these hazard merchants. Barring that asking irrespnsible film actors and public personalities to consider the health of the country before that of their pockets is like telling a banker not to accept black money. 

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