India Campaigns to Stamp Out Smokeless Tobacco

India is in a growing battle with the tobacco industry to ban gutkha, a mixture of chewing tobacco and pan masala, the ubiquitous mixture of nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices that Indian families serve after meals.

So far, 14 of India’s 28 states have banned the production of gutkha, to the dismay of India’s Smokeless Tobacco Association, the All India Kattha Factories Association and the Central Arecanut and Cocoa Marketing and Processing Co-operative, who have put on an intensive advertising campaign about the relative merits of gutkha over cigarettes.

The ad campaign accuses the 14 states of treating cigarettes as beneficial for health, and questions if it is fair to ban gutkha and not cigarettes. One pouch of gutkha, they argue, contains 0.2gm of tobacco as opposed to 0.63gm of tobacco in one cigarette; that cigarettes produce 4,000 chemicals against 3,000 for smokeless tobacco; that cigarette smoke affects the health of non-smokers while gutkha does not; and that a ban on gutkha would expose hundreds of thousands of shopkeepers and farmers to loss of their livelihoods. The tobacco interests also predict the loss of tens of thousands of jobs of people engaged in the industry, while neglecting the havoc their products have been wreaking on millions of consumers and their families.

According to media reports, some 250,000 people are suffering from cancer in the state of Uttar Pradesh, of which 75,000 are cases of oral and mouth cancer, mainly due to use of chewing tobacco and the gutkha and pan masala mixture. Experts believe that by 2020 the cancer population will swell by 56 percent, with more than 30 percent suffering from oral cancer caused by chewing tobacco.

Accordingly, both national and local governments have been pushing to ban smokeless tobacco because of the health issues. However, the lobby is challenging a central government regulation that bans the sale of smokeless tobacco and nicotine-laced food products, which has been in place for more than a year.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, a statutory body under the Union Health Ministry, on Aug. 5, 2011, issued a regulation stating that: “Tobacco and nicotine shall not be used as ingredients in any food products.” The Supreme Court further clarified that “Since pan masala, gutkha or supari (betel nut) are eaten for taste and nourishment, they are all food within the meaning of Section 2(v) of the Act.”

The act has nothing to do with the harmful effects of tobacco on health—it only disallows any nicotine/tobacco laced product to be sold under the banner of a food product. If gutkha hadn’t been sold as a food product, it would not come under the purview of the act. Gutkha manufacturers for years have reaped the benefits of enticing an ever increasing number of consumers to nicotine-laced products sold under the garb of mouth fresheners. But now when they are being asked to peddle poison in the name of poison alone, and not camouflaged as a dietary add-on, they feel threatened.

The new regulation seems to be too weak even when enforced properly, and already gutkha manufacturers are reported as having found means to circumvent it. Many brands in Delhi and elsewhere are selling pan masala and tobacco as a duo in two different pouches which can be mixed together and consumed. So it is unlikely that consumption of tobacco will go down in those already hooked on to gutkha.

Nor are the users likely to switch over to cigarettes. They will more likely continue enjoying their daily dose, albeit with a slight change in the consumption style. Of course, as the process of mixing two products (rather than have a readymade mixture) is a little more cumbersome, it might deter new young entrants and perhaps female consumers.

To reduce the number of tobacco users it is imperative to take steps to deter youths from joining the tobacco users and also to help the current addicts to quit, rather than encouraging them to switch over from one lethal from of tobacco to another. What is essential are quality tobacco cessation clinics to be integrated within the existing healthcare setup by training the healthcare professionals to provide cessation facilities.

As there is no safe level of tobacco, the best thing would be to ban all forms of consumable tobacco products—smoking and chewable. Until tobacco use is eradicated altogether society should at least try to reduce consumption by discouraging people to buy it through innovative advocacy campaigns, strong pictorial and text warnings, and anti-tobacco endorsements by celebrities. The price of chewing tobacco, cigarettes and bidis, a type of cheap cigarette, should be raised to make the unaffordable for.

It should be made it difficult for people to indulge in their addiction by strictly enforcing existing anti-tobacco and smoking laws and bringing in more regulations, helping people to quit through easy accessibility of quality cessation facilities and, above all, by not bowing to the pressure tactics of the powerful tobacco industry and not allowing it to play havoc with the health of the nation through misleading advertisements and false propaganda of their so called social responsibility activities.

(Shobha Shukla is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service and is the author of several books. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: http://www.citizen-news.org)