The Tobacco War

As In­dia strug­gles to check tobacco use and the losses it in­flicts, tobacco firms up the ante

Governance Now - - CONTENTS - SB Easwaran

The in­dus­try has taken off its gloves and is go­ing af­ter anti-tobacco lob­by­ists

There are a zil­lion se­cret rea­sons why peo­ple start on the one habit that has not even a sin­gle ben­e­fit, wors­ens their health from the very first day, ugli­fies their teeth and makes them smell un­bear­ably foul, and what’s worse, is a ma­jor cause of can­cer. We are speak­ing, of course, of smok­ing or oth­er­wise in­gest­ing tobacco. (even al­co­hol in strict mod­er­a­tion is sup­posed to be good for the heart.) The real rea­sons peo­ple start tak­ing tobacco are se­cret be­cause, af­ter all, who will con­fess to tak­ing up smok­ing be­cause some ac­tor, writer, or celeb looked cool with a cig­a­rette, some mir­ror made them look suitably re­bel­lious, some tobacco-glam­or­is­ing ad judo-tricked their mind, or some friends made them feel left out with­out the smoky halo or the jaw work­ing away on some­thing chewy or granular? once they start on tobacco, how­ever, users are bound to it by the nearly un­break­able chain of chem­istry and phys­i­ol­ogy. The ma­jor­ity of those who be­gin re­main users for the rest of their lives. “You don’t quit cig­a­rettes, they quit you one day,” as Su­mi­tra Hooda Ped­nekar puts it (see pro­file on page 24).

The weed that con­quis­ta­dors and ex­plor­ers first saw Na­tive Amer­i­cans smok­ing has since built mer­can­tile and colo­nial em­pires on the ba­sis of that ad­dic­tive power. The state, in every form, has prof­ited from it over four or five cen­turies; equally, cor­po­rates have ac­quired fi­nan­cial might and po­lit­i­cal clout on the strength of tobacco. While this was ig­nored or con­doned till the early decades of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, once the health risks of tobacco use be­came es­tab­lished, tobacco com­pa­nies have de­ployed in­sid­i­ous means to keep their prod­ucts de­sir­able and in sale. They are known to fund po­lit­i­cal par­ties and politi­cians, they are known to in­flu­ence pol­icy and tax­a­tion, they are known to bend every rule or find a way past it, whether it comes to ad­ver­tis­ing bans, pic­to­rial warn­ings, free sam­pling or tax slabs. as coun­tries in the West clamp down on tobacco and ed­u­cated pop­u­la­tions wake up to the dan­gers of tobacco use, in­ter­na­tional tobacco gi­ants have turned their at­ten­tion to the de­vel­op­ing world, es­pe­cially the emerg­ing economies, in their quest for en­rich­ing mar­kets. as anti-tobacco cam­paign­ers and en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties labour to curb tobacco use, they find them­selves up against the for­mi­da­ble fi­nan­cial clout, alarm­ing strate­gies, and in­sid­i­ous tac­tics of tobacco com­pa­nies.

The bat­tle is play­ing out in in­dia too. some in­ter­na­tional tobacco gi­ants have their tar­gets pretty well de­fined. Re­spond­ing in a cold and pro­fes­sional man­ner to the steady in­crease in anti-tobacco mea­sures in cer­tain coun­tries, they have read­ied blue­prints to tar­get youth, and to counter the work of vol­un­tary groups work­ing against tobacco. spe­cial men­tion is made, in at least one com­pany’s blue­print, of tac­tics to trip up groups in­volved in anti-tobacco pol­icy ad­vo­cacy. at the po­lit­i­cal level, th­ese be­he­moths are work­ing to gain po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence – bribes are not men­tioned, of course, but it’s well known they are given at the en­force­ment level and that top au­thor­i­ties can­not keep their po­si­tions with­out their nod. They are also try­ing to present a larger ‘pub­lic in­ter­est’ as­pect – what­ever that means – to the is­sue. rich tobacco farm­ers’ groups and beedi and gutka millionaires are also at work, try­ing to present the is­sue as one of the small farmer be­ing robbed of a liveli­hood. They claim that tobacco farm­ers should also have a say in pol­icy-mak­ing on tobacco. it won’t be sur­pris­ing if th­ese noise-mak­ers and poster-mon­gers are found to be in the pay of the very for­eign tobacco firms they claim to be op­pos­ing. Yes, the logic is a bit weird, but th­ese farm­ers groups have in­sin­u­ated that anti-tobacco groups are in fact work­ing against the poor tobacco farmer and for for­eign tobacco com­pa­nies!

against such an as­sault from the pro-tobacco lobby, what is the in­dian gov­ern­ment do­ing? on the one hand, it makes no bones about its in­ten­tion to check the use of tobacco. since the 1990s, a se­ries of mea­sures have been in­tro­duced – a ban on ad­ver­tis­ing tobacco prod­ucts, ban on smok­ing in pub­lic places, pic­to­rial warn­ings on cig­a­rette packs that are no longer a joke, health-risk warn­ings in films in which peo­ple are shown smok­ing or us­ing tobacco. But en­force­ment at ground level is lax. also, as the PIL by the gutsy Su­mi­tra Hooda Ped­nekar and oth­ers shows, dif­fer­ent wings of the gov­ern­ment work at cross-pur­poses: while the health min­istry pants in the sisyphean ex­er­tions of try­ing to re­duce the use of tobacco and tot­ting up the over­all na­tional loss in lives and pro­duc­tiv­ity from tobacco use, the fi­nance min­istry has pub­lic-sec­tor in­sur­ance com­pa­nies in­vest­ing in highly prof­itable tobacco firms and jus­ti­fy­ing it as purely busi­ness de­ci­sions. our cover pack­age takes up th­ese is­sues in de­tail.

mean­while, two thoughts. it is through the power of as­so­ci­a­tion that peo­ple are usu­ally drawn to the tobacco habit. Why hasn’t the gov­ern­ment ef­fec­tively har­nessed its power to keep peo­ple off? From early years in school, ef­fec­tive au­dio-vis­ual cam­paigns, us­ing graphic ma­te­rial un­der ex­pert guid­ance, re­peated over the years in school and col­lege might re­in­force the idea that tobacco, like drugs, is not a good habit af­ter all – even though a cig­a­rette dan­gling in the cor­ner of the mouth might seem uber-cool. and where are the gov­ern­ment-run clin­ics to help peo­ple quit? in many west­ern coun­tries, life and health­care in­sur­ers pay for or sub­sidise such treat­ment. per­haps it would be a bit too much to ex­pect in­dian in­sur­ers to do so: af­ter all, they in­vest in tobacco firms!


In­sur­ance firms ought to be pay­ing for or sub­si­dis­ing tobacco-quitting pro­grammes. In­stead, we have pub­lic-sec­tor in­sur­ers in­vest­ing in tobacco gi­ants.

Ashish asthana

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