City Sunday

Combating tobacco menace: Strong will needed

By Vasanthkumar Mysoremath

The government of India’s National Tobacco Control Plan is making all efforts to reduce tobacco consumption in India to the maximum extent by the year 2020 as per its protocol agreement with UN/WHO sponsored Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. But cultivation of tobacco crop, production and consumption of all forms of tobacco products has increased exponentially.  India is the second largest producer and consumer of tobacco in the world. About 35-40% of Indians consume tobacco in some form of the other.  Consumption of tobacco products is causing more than 2200 persons are dying an untimely death every day or 8 million a year due to diseases directly attributable to consumption of deadly tobacco products, in India.   While deaths due to natural causes/diseases are about 50 per cent, tobacco-related diseases are causing an equal number of premature deaths.   Tobacco is the only legal cash crop permitted to kill 50% of its consumers. In India, an estimated 5500 young people getting attracted to tobacco products and are becoming lifetime slaves.  India is the capital city for oral cancer and consumption of tobacco is known to aggravate tuberculosis and HIV spread.

With all these negative traits about tobacco, it is unfathomable why even the World Health Organisation is not taking serious note and tackling the core issue of reducing cultivation of tobacco crop over a period of time by adopting due diligence and checks and balances within the framework of existing laws for ensuring good health of the people.  Just prescribing themes for tackling tobacco menace like – create awareness about ill effects of consumption, stop illicit trading, stop tobacco industry interference, stop advertising, provide 85% pack space for depicting gory pictures and warning messages, etc., are only peripheral issues of this mega problem and have become passé. Therefore, the time has come to tackle the core issue of managing supply system of raw material to a non-priority industry.

“Health before economics” should be the watchword for policymakers, particularly major producers of tobacco crop in the world since tobacco is not a substance required for a living; we can live without it and for reasons known and proven.  More than 190 countries representing about 80% of the global population have signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control protocol; many have taken highly proactive steps like plain packaged cigarette packs, divestment of public money in tobacco company shares, restriction of interaction of public servants with policymaking officials, ban on gutka, ban on sale of loose cigarettes etc.  But in some signatory countries, though policies have been laid down for controlling tobacco epidemic, they are subsidising farmers with a supply of quality seeds, fertilisers, implements, easy agricultural loans etc., thus indirectly encouraging farmers to continue tobacco cultivation. In addition, the elected representatives who are watchdogs for ensuring good governance of the country are indulging in activities and are acting as internal pressure groups for ensuring better support price, etc. These dual actualities are attracting more and more farmers to resort to illegal cultivation of tobacco crop shunning their traditional habit of cultivating food grains, vegetables, etc., for a few rupees more.

Suggestions for combating tobacco epidemic:

  1. Start cancelling 10% of permits/licenses issued to tobacco growers and stop renewing old licences – one who is authorised to grant can also cancel the licence if terms of contract or rules are violated.
  2. Reduce annually 20% of permissible acreage and crop size.
  3. Abolish Tobacco Board or redefine its Charter, Vision and Mission Statement to make it accountable for reducing tobacco menace.
  4. Completely Ban growing of tobacco illegally and refuse to procure all excess/illegal quantity of crop from farmers for auction.
  5. Stop all loans being extended to farmers from Scheduled/ cooperative banks/financial institutions as also various forms of subsidies to tobacco farmers.
  6. Raise taxes on all tobacco products to make it prohibitively costly for consumers.
  7. Stop giving support price and also stop the supply of fertilisers, manure, pesticides, insecticides and implements.
  8. Educate farmers that India has an international obligation to reduce tobacco products consumption by the end of the year 2020 and that they must understand the imperatives of shifting over to alternate cropping initiatives.
  9. Help all farmers who are willing to surrender their tobacco permits/Barns with necessary alternate cropping inputs like soil testing, irrigation facilities, seeds, fertilisers, insecticides, marketing of produces, bank loans on easy terms.
  10. Direct all elected representatives to advice tobacco farmers in their constituencies to reduce/stop tobacco farming and adopt alternate cropping system.
  11. Stop extending various kinds of subsidies and giving support price to tobacco growers
  12. Even though the procuring and auctioning authority is not legally bound to procure excess grown /illegally grown tobacco, the authority is procuring the same (by a levy of some nominal fine) for auction in Government platforms.
  13. Elected representatives are found openly expressing their support and are found lobbying for changes in the rules and regulations/policy matters; they are taking an active part in promoting tobacco and assuring/ encouraging tobacco farmers to adopt improved methods of farming to grow more of quality tobacco.
  14. In India, Karnataka Government on 7-5-2017 had withdrawn the order passed for banning chewing tobacco, though they had passed the orders under directions from Supreme Court order. This will enable chewing tobacco manufacturers to continue to produce chewing tobacco and pan in different sachets and sell together.
  15. Non-smokers money is being spent to treat the costly treatment of diseases of smokers and this is against all forms of social and economic justice.
  16. Cause to issue directives to the elected representatives of the Indian Parliament and States’ Legislatures to stop encouraging tobacco growers with promises and stop interfering in the enforcement of tobacco control policy matters.

In view of the above facts, issues, conflicts, it is appealed that all political parties make their stand clear with regard to containment of tobacco cultivation, ban on sale of all forms of smoke and non-smoke tobacco products and finally to eliminate tobacco crop in a gradual manner by 2020 to fulfil the guidelines of FCTC – WHO international protocol obligation and also keeping in view Article 47 of the Constitution of India.

(The writer is Honorary Advisor, Cancer Patients Aid Association & Convenor; Anti-Tobacco Forum, Mysuru).

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