Health tax

Tobacco industry is the true test of health policy

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

-- the biggest challenge to environmental and public health regulation is the burden of proof. It always rests with those arguing on the side of common good. The industrial system is driven entirely by the market, not by public good -- and any stricture against industry is directly countered with not only the loss of revenue and employment but also by large bodies of 'sponsored' research.

Yet, inevitably, if a certain industrial process or product is creating a menace to the environment or public health, the onus of proving that menace falls on the defenders of public good. That is driven in part by the fact that the line between public good and private vendetta is very thin. Public good is something that can never be defined very clearly -- the focus tends to be bleary with very few moments of clarity. There are too many variables in this equation. Which is why the State -- the guardian of the public good -- needs to invest constantly to attain clarity. That doesn't happen easily; doesn't happen at all in developing countries with bankrupt politicians. So it is difficult to prove climate change even if snow falls in Dubai (see p9).

There is one exception: health effects. Nothing fires the fuel of the precautionary principle greater than proven adverse health effects, particularly on humans. And proving the effect of a certain practice or phenomenon on human health is not as difficult as proving that climate change is anthropogenically caused. The body provides a controlled environment -- as against the atmosphere for climatologists -- for scientists to study the effects of a new chemical or a new food. The prospect of a proven threat to health is more palpable than the prospect of the rainforest vanishing by 2030.

But the tobacco industry prospers. The health costs of tobacco far outweigh the revenue generated by the industry (see p60). In India, the tobacco sector earns the government Rs 9,100 crore, while the health cost of tobacco-related diseases is Rs 30,833 crore. But governments of developing countries fail to check Big Tobacco's march from the industrialised countries to the poorer sections of the world. The industry argues: the choice of using tobacco products lies with the consumer. But governments too make a choice: they favour meagre revenue over public health.

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