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A Publication
on The Status of
Adivasi Populations
of India




The Cancerous Faces of Indian Tobacco

By Sazzad Hussain

30 May, 2015

Tobacco is one of the most ancient and common form of narco-substance that have been consumed by people across the world. It has been associated with various cultural forms and practices such as the Navajo Indians of North America, Bedouins to the tribes of North East India. However tobacco is the cause of cancer worldwide and therefore its use among the humans must be minimized even though it could not be completely eradicated. Though tobacco has been glamourized by Cuban cigars, Arab hookahs and Marlboro cowboys, its forms in bidi, khaini (in dry leafy form) are synonymous with the working class people of countries like India. As these poor downtrodden population of South Asia consume most of these tobacco products, there sales in plastic packets and pouches with pictures of the owners of the product adds misery to the already visible health hazards among the consumers. Besides creating health problems like rise of cancer, the selling of tobacco products in plastic pouches leads to an environmental degradation, affecting the already fragile ecosystem of the country. Today on World No Tobacco Day we have to address this duel challenge of health risks and environment created by tobacco products in India.

World No Tobacco Day was first observed in 1987, after a cabinet of the WHA (World Health Assembly) passed a motion supported by the WHO, with guidelines to manage and curb tobacco consumption. The Day primarily focuses on encouraging users to refrain from tobacco consumption and its related products for a period of at least 24 hours. The objective of observing the day is to reduce tobacco consumption which can lead to deadly diseases like cancer and early death. No Tobacco Day also aims to keep a watch on companies that sell cigarettes and other tobacco products through striking advertisements which influence people to consume their product. To propel its cause and appeal globally, WHA selects a fresh theme every year. The theme of World No Tobacco Day 2015 is ‘call on countries to work together to end the illicit trade of tobacco products.’ Under the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), countries must recognize that the illicit tobacco trade not only exacerbates the global tobacco epidemic and its related health consequences, but that it has security implications through financing organised crime, including drugs, human and arms trafficking, as well as terrorism. Ratification of the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products is necessary to respond to the financial, legal and health impacts of the illicit trade of tobacco products.

The global tobacco epidemic kills nearly 6 million people each year, of which more than 600 000 are non-smokers dying from breathing second-hand smoke. Approximately one person dies every six seconds due to tobacco, accounting for one in 10 adult deaths. In adults, second-hand smoke causes serious cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, including coronary heart disease and lung cancer. In infants, it causes sudden death. In pregnant women, it causes low birth weight. Almost half of children regularly breathe air polluted by tobacco smoke in public places. Over 40% of children have at least one smoking parent. In 2004, children accounted for 28% of the deaths attributable to second-hand smoke. Unless we act, the epidemic will kill more than 8 million people every year by 2030. More than 80% of these preventable deaths will be among people living in low-and middle-income countries. Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death globally and is currently responsible for 10% of adult deaths worldwide.

In India 86 per cent of the oral cancer (mouth and throat) is caused by tobacco products. More than 240 million Indians use some form of cheap and addictive tobacco – which is linked to more than a million deaths every year.

In some countries, children from poor households are frequently employed in tobacco farming to provide family income. These children are especially vulnerable to "green tobacco sickness", which is caused by the nicotine that is absorbed through the skin from the handling of wet tobacco leaves.

Hard-hitting anti-tobacco advertisements and graphic pack warnings – especially those that include pictures – reduce the number of children who begin smoking and increase the number of smokers who quit. Earlier, in a bid to persuade people against tobacco use, sports was made free from its presence—sponsorship, advertisements etc. As a result big tobacco companies like Salem, Benson & Hedges and Rothmans were barred from sponsoring sporting events—tennis, F-1 race, cricket. India also followed suit “The Made for Each Other” couple of the Wills brand and the ‘Charminar Challenge’ in Indian cricket bid adieu from our public spaces.

Bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship reduced tobacco consumption considerably worldwide and in India. But its other forms—khaini, gutkha, zarda have entered the market in a different way penetrating the all age groups and social backgrounds. The most popular chewing tobacco product in India presently is gutkha, a preparation of crushed areca nut, catechu, paraffin, lime, flavourings and small amounts – less than ten per cent – of tobacco. It has become an increasingly popular form of mild stimulant and mouth freshener in India, especially because of its easy availability at roadside kiosks and low starting prices of just one rupee per two-gram pouch.

We can find almost all the brands of gutkas and khaini are available in plastic pouches. These pouches are not quite as sizeable as the polythene bags, which is perhaps why the users casually drop them wherever they are. Polypropylene is the material used in making the pouches, which has a very small amount of plastic which is responsible for preserving the tobacco product in these pouch. Pouches made from biodegradable plastic films will have to meet Bureau of Indian Standards specifications. But in most of the cases it has been found that the plastic pouches used in gutkha and kahini packing are not biodegradable and they add misery to soil pollution along with other plastic products.

Culturally India has a tradition of printing the photos of the owner of the brand in different products and the tobacco industry has majority of this unique tradition. Handmade smoking tobacco like Bidi have the pictures of the owner of the brand on its wrapper since a long time and various smokeless tobacco products—Khainis, gutkhas and pan masalas extensively use faces of their owners on the cover or wrapper. Instead of having graphic pictorial warnings for the health hazards of tobacco, these portraits of owners try to give a message of its carefree use and consumption. Most of these pictures are of people belonging to the earlier generation, who singlehandedly set up an empire of tobacco business with their products. The faces that appear on the wrappers or packet covers are of innocent looking, God-fearing gentlemen of old age. But these faces are contributing towards the spread of cancer from generations to generations. There brands manufacture tobacco products in different flavours and export them abroad—mainly South East Asia and the Gulf. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently endorsed more stern pictorial warnings on tobacco products, these faces of Indian men have to go. They should realize that how much they caused cancer to the users with their photos instead of statuary warnings.

Supreme Court of India banned sale of tobacco products in plastic pouches from 1st March 2011. It also asked for the alternative material for packaging them. This was basically a part of the environment ministry’s revised plastic waste management’s rules. The MoEF notified the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 on 7 February 2011 banning on use of plastic materials in sachets for storing, packing or selling gutkha, tobacco and pan masala.
Though the Plastic Management and Disposal Rules 2009 were in place it has never been enforced by the authorities anywhere in India so far. Some abortive attempts by authorities at the district level failed to succeed because of non-cooperation by the public in not using the plastic/polythene bags. Similarly there should be a ban on printing of photos of Indian men on the tobacco products. Public awareness is the key in addressing this duel challenge of tobacco and the sale of its products in plastic.

(Published on the occasion of World No Tobacco Day)

Sazzad Hussain is a freelancer based in Assam , e-mail:[email protected]


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