Tobacco Still Matters

'Smoking Kills’. Whether this warning, otherwise statutory, on cigarette packets, has any practical value in real life is anybody’s guess. But ‘Warning Business’ is big business. It doesn’t matter to tobacco merchants whether more and more people risk their lives simply by ignoring the all important warning. Right now a controversy is raging over comments by a parliamentary panel head and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Dilip Gandhi, that there was no authentic Indian report to confirm tobacco leads to cancer. So the 15-member panel on subordinate legislation, headed by Mr Gandhi ‘strongly’ urged the Union Government to keep on hold its proposal to increase the size of pictorial warnings on tobacco packets from 40 percent to 85 percent. And quite expectedly the Opposition, particularly the Congress smelt rat in Mr Gandhi’s attempts to woo tobacco lobby, rather ‘bidi barons’, as Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh lost no time to demand a probe to find out whether there was any connection between BJP and Cigarette and tobacco manufacturers. Gandhi’s statement that four crore people in states like Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chattisgarh are dependent on bidi-making through tendu leaves seems too innocuous to be dismissed lightly, but his ‘ignorance’ about tobacco and health hazards is now a source of ridicule. His observation that all tobacco-related findings are West-centric, having no relevance in Indian context is really a gem in the BJP brand of political wisdom. Absurdity makes sense to Gandhis because absurdity generates money. After all ‘‘India is one of the countries which has the largest incidence of cancer’’. Even by conservative estimates ‘‘India will record about 1.5 million tobacco-related deaths annually by 2020’’. And research in this field contrary to claims by Mr Gandhi, is not insignificant.

Refusal to print statutory graphic warnings on cigarette packs to warn about dangers of smoking has created a large number of legal suits against Tobacco Majors in many third world countries. Uruguay has reportedly presented a 500-page document to defend itself against international law suit challenging the country’s tough tobacco packaging regulations. It is Philip Morris, the Tobacco Transnational Corporation, that brought the claim at the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in Washington DC. Philip Morris is taking the legal advantage of a 1991 investment treaty between Uruguay and Switzerland to coerce the government of Uruguay. Their contention is that depiction of large size warning insertion means less profit. Philip Morris is actually bullying Uruguay because they are small. This is like David and Goliath.

Tragically enough, Uruguay’s annual gross domestic product is $53 billion, less than that of Philip Morris which took in $80 billion last year.

The Uruguayan case is in reality a message designed to be global. Philip Morris is said to have its way in Thailand where courts have ordered the temporary suspension of a new tobacco packaging law. In truth, Japan Tobacco, yet another major tobacco giant, has also sued the Thai government, demanding minimum packaging law, to carry out business and ensure reasonable return.

Continuing efforts by different Third World Governments to protect their citizens against tobacco consumption and exposure to second hand smoke, despite challenges by the tobacco industry, demonstrate among other things that awareness campaign against tobacco is spreading across the world. Only people like Mr Dilip Gandhi look smoke-blind. Perhaps Mr Gandhi doesn’t know how Philip Morris, an advocate of smaller size warning labels, has lost a lawsuit in Australia over the Tobacco Plain Packaging Act. They have now appealed to the UN Commission on International Trade Law, claiming that Australia’s 2011 law is violative of a 1993 bilateral treaty between Australia and Hong Kong. What deserves attention is the multinationals quite often take shelter under the discriminatory bilateral trade agreements to sabotage national laws in the host country. No doubt talking tough to multinationals by Uruguay paid dividends to its population. ‘‘After companies were required to print photos of pre-mature babies, decaying teeth, and hospital operation on cigarette packages, smoking rates dropped from 33% to 12% among Uruguayan teenagers and from 40% to 23% among adults’’.

Not much is heard about tobacco lobby in India but tendu leaf contractors and bidi-manufactures play a big role, like sugar magnets in every election, in some western and central states. And this trade has its representatives in legislatures in tendu leaf producing states like Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. So the Gandhis have reasons to talk nonsense while minimising cancer risk in tobacco consumption and allowing the industry not to increase the size of pictorial warnings on packs from 40 percent to 85 percent. Incidentally, the Left has nothing to talk about tobacco lobby as if it is not an issue affecting ordinary people. Whether they like it or not it is really a serious issue involving people’s health and big business houses’ manoeuvring to influence political process of a country.

At the time of writing yet another BJP MP and a panel member as well Shyama Charan Gupta came down heavily on tobacco critics while supporting Mr Gandhi and discovered a conspiracy to sabotage Mr Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign. These people are against World Health Organisation because WHO’s prescription on display of pictorial warning doesn’t suit their business interests. About 9 lakh Indians die every year from diseases caused by tobacco use but to these people, figures, if they are related to human beings, are for fun!      03-04-2015

Vol. 47, No. 40, Apr 12 - 18, 2015