Ashes to Ashes

India has joined the battle against smoking by banning it's citizens from lighting up in public.

And to emphasize the seriousness of the ban, it chose October 2 to bring the it into force, the anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation. A man of unbelievable simplicity, honesty, commitment and leadership quality, Gandhi led millions of Indians to end British colonial rule more than 50 years ago.

In what is sure to be a contentious move, the Indian Health Ministry has banned lighting up in all indoor establishments, covering all government, semi-government and autonomous offices, educational institutions, libraries, lifts, hospitals, clinics, court buildings, airports, sea and river port buildings, ferries, railway stations, bus terminals, hotels, restaurants, cinema halls, amusement centres, sports complexes, bars and children's parks. But not yet affected are open spaces including adults' parks, roads, private homes and vehicles. Hotels with a seating capacity of more than 30 are allowed to maintain a separate smokers' enclosure. "India is ready to go smoke free in all public places," said Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss. Fronting a media campaign in the national capital, New Delhi, the soft spoken but energetic minister urged the people of India to support the ban.

The ministry issued a notification for the ban under the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution), Act 2003, which also includes a ban on advertising of tobacco products on television, in cinemas and

newspapers. Anyone violating the rules faces a 200 rupees (around US$5) fine, a significant amount of money for most Indians. The penalty will rise up to 1,000 rupees for repeat offenders.

And it is not just those caught smoking in public who face punishment, but the owner and/or authorized officer of the premises will also be liable.

India, with a population of than one billion, is the home of nearly 120 million smokers, and some 40 per cent of deaths every year are directly or indirectly related to tobacco. Moreover, India has the highest rate of oral cancer caused by tobacco consumption in the world. Around one million people die from tobacco-related diseases such as cancer of lungs, lips, tongue, oral cavity, throat, uterus and urinary bladder each year.

Bobby Ramakant, an anti-tobacco activist, told Asia Sentinel of his satisfaction at the new law: "The habit of smoking tobacco killed over 100 million people in the last century. But it might reach up to one billion victims in the 21st century worldwide if the authorities do not take the proper initiatives to curb the habit."

Talking to Doordarshan, India's national channel, Ramadoss disclosed that he had written to all the chief ministers (provincial political heads), state health ministers and Parliamentarians to join hands in the mission to curb the practice of smoking. But not everyone agrees with the move. Some chief ministers (including those of West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh), lobbied against the ban, and some 80 Members of Parliament spoke against the measures.

In August this year, World Health Organization Director-General Dr Margaret Chan commented that anti-smoking campaigns were the

world's best weapons in the fight against cancer.

"Cancer is one of the major threats to public health in the developed world and increasingly in the developing world. In developed countries cancer is the second most common cause of death," she said, adding that prevention measures could be the most cost-effective way to limit the impact of the disease.

World Heart Day last month did much to spread the message. WHO figures indicate that India faces having the world's largest number number of cardiac patients (some 60 per cent of the population) by the year 2010.

Dr AK Sharma, a representative of the Cardiology Society of India (Northeast Chapter), told Asia Sentinel that heart disease and strokes combined kill 17.5 million people every year. Put in context, that's the same as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and diabetes combined India thus joins more than 60 countries where smoking in public places has already been banned, including several regional neighbours.

The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan became the world's first nonsmoking nation in 2004. Thimphu not only banned smoking in public places, but also prohibited the selling of such products. Similarly, Bangladesh banned smoking in public in 2005. The government in Dhaka outlawed smoking in all areas including schools, offices, hospitals, public transport and airports. Even the military rulers of Burma took the step to ban the practice with high penalties

in 2006.

China has also tried its own measures. Beijing has banned smoking on public transport and brought in restrictions on lighting up in hospitals, schools and government offices. The motivation is simple. The world's most populous nation has 350 million smokers, and reportedly losses nearly 3,000 people every year due to tobacco related diseases.

In India, the ban faces stiff opposition from the cigarette companies and hotel owners, but the Supreme Court refused to delay the implementation of the law and rejected their petition to stay the order.

The apex court (comprising Justices B N Agrawal and G S Singhvi) said in its verdict: "We have given our anxious consideration to the entire matter. We are of the view that it's not a fit case to put any interim stay on the implementation of a ban on smoking." The court also rules that no other courts in the country could pass any order on this issue.

Ramadoss expressed his satisfaction at the verdict, pointing out that one sixth of humanity lives in India. At the same time, nearly 600 million people are under 30 years of age.

"We consider them the high-risk group when it comes to tobacco, alcohol, drug use, HIV infection and junk food consumption. It is the responsibility of the government and primarily the health minister to highlight the ill effects of these to the naive, illiterate and the youngsters," he added."We consider them the high-risk group when it comes to tobacco, alcohol, drug use, HIV infection and junk food consumption. It is the responsibility of the government and primarily the health minister to highlight the ill effects of these to the naive, illiterate and the youngsters," he added.