news Monday, June 01, 2015 - 05:30
  Every year, on World Tobacco Day, there is a barrage of media news reports, articles, op-eds and campaigns calling for a ban on public smoking, stricter regulations against tobacco companies and efforts from governments to discourage smoking. This year, there was a difference. For a change, the problem of illicit tobacco caught the attention of the United Nations. On Sunday, May 31, the body called for an end to the illegal trade. While the much-bandied-about issue has been that of the warning size on tobacco packets and the government PSAs imploring the smoker to kick the butt, the problem of “fake cigarettes” or illicit tobacco products which are smuggled into the country has been largely ignored. The market for counterfeit cigarettes in the country has been booming. According to 2012 media reports, 17 billion cigarette sticks are smuggled into India each year, and that its market in 2010-11 was worth close to Rs 1,700 crore. In 2013, it was reported that there was an increase of 12% in 2011/12 in the illicit tobacco trade, and that they garnered a market share worth Rs 1,900 crore. The total market for the illicit trade in tobacco is worth $4 billion according to a FICCI report and India reportedly constitutes 6-7% of the market-share. Experts have said that the products make their way into India from neighbouring countries like China, Nepal, Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh. The hike in prices of cigarettes has lead smokers to resort to cigarettes which are cheap rip-offs of established products in the market. These are generally referred to by paan-shop hawkers as “imported”. These cigarettes are often poor quality ones which are smuggled, and their quality questionable. Cigarettes are unhealthy as it is, but fake products could be even more harmful. Reports state that these cigarettes have “hugely higher levels of tar, nicotine and some of the cancer-causing chemicals lead and arsenic.” By increasing consumption in current smokers, the lower pricing of such cigarettes also contributes to a higher mortality rate due to smoking-related diseases, according to a WHO report.   In India, the popularity of these ‘imported’ cigarettes are attributed to how expensive real ones are becoming with each passing year. Prices have increased by 100% over the past four years. A stick of Gold Flake Kings cost Rs 6 in 2011, now it costs Rs 12. The issue echoes in the words of Manoj Reddy, Manager of Marketing at the Tobacco Board who says that cigarette companies have been complaining of increasing excise duties which have in-turn increased the prices of cigarettes. “Cigarette companies complain that the increasing excise duties are making it difficult for the business to thrive,” says Manoj, speaking to TNM. The illicit packets in cigarettes come into focus here as those who cannot afford a Marlboro, will pick up a cheaper, yet fancier-looking packet which is more likely to be fake, and devoid of the warnings that should be present on a tobacco product. Manoj says that since the business of fake cigarettes is “under the carpet”, there is no credible data available on these cigarettes. “It’s all hearsay,” he says, adding that the only route for credible information is the customs department. A recent report on NDTV quotes a senior customs official saying that “90 per cent (of illicit cigarettes) are probably getting through.” Aside from smokers, tobacco farmers are also bearing the brunt of illicit tobacco. An ASSOCHAM report mentions that “large volumes of such (smuggled) cigarettes coming from across the borders will gradually kill the domestic industry and consequently, severely affect the livelihood of the five million tobacco farmers, mainly in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.” Chengil Reddy, Chief Advisor with the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association mentions that while the government is not curbing the influx of the fake products, it isn’t doing much to help farmers either in what he calls “misleading propaganda”. “Ever since pictorial warnings were introduced in 2009, the illicit tobacco trade has grown by 31 percent. Smuggled cigarettes do not carry warnings, and understandably perceived safer by consumers; they also do not use Indian tobacco, thereby, reducing the demand for farmers. This year, prices of tobacco are already down by 7 percent, and any further regulation will put extreme stress on the farming community,” he says. The CISF plan on launching an agitation against the government on the issue soon and Reddy says it will be on the lines of the recent “Gujjar demonstrations”. While rail-roko may or may not work, a trail-roko of illicit cigarettes would help those most affected.
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