Tobacco manufacturer ITC exploits legal loopholes to openly advertise and sell nicotine gums
What’s the worst that could happen to India’s campaign against tobacco? Manufacturers of tobacco products join the campaign, market the idea and make a fortune selling a product which they claim helps addicts quit tobacco.
India’s largest tobacco product manufacturer ITC Limited did exactly that when it launched its nicotine chewing gum, KwikNic, in the last quarter of 2013. Nicotine is the stimulant drug in tobacco that makes it addictive. The tobacco manufacturer exploited the loopholes in the current laws not only to enter the market, but also to advertise it widely on television channels and billboards. The reason: unlike the tobacco industry which is suffering because of government restrictions such as hike in taxes and anti-tobacco advertisements, the market for nicotine gums is growing at an annual rate of 40 per cent.
In 2002, India, which has 270 million tobacco users, legalised chewing gums with two milligrams (mg) of nicotine under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940. Since then several pharmaceutical companies have launched their products in India, including Nicorette from Johnson & Johnson, Nicotex and Nicogum from Cipla and Tobaquit from Zydus Cadila. ITC claims it has registered KwikNic as a drug, but unlike pharmaceutical companies, it has gone all out and started an aggressive advertising and marketing campaign to sell the product.
The company exploited the fact that the three pieces of legislation that govern sale and distribution of drugs and cosmetics in India—the Drugs and Cosmetic Act, 1940, the Drug and Cosmetic Rule, 1945, and the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable advertisements) Act, 1955—are silent on whether nicotine-based drugs can be promoted/advertised. As a result, the company has started selling the drug not only at chemist shops, but also at paan shops, grocery stores and shopping websites.
One of the television commercials of KwikNic shows a bridegroom struggling to say qubool hai (I do) because of tobacco in his mouth. Irritated, somebody from the audience screams out the sentence thrice and gets married instead. The bride faints and the product is pushed as an alterative to tobacco.
Experts working against tobacco products say the practice started by ITC to advertise the product and make it easily available at stores will only help non-smokers get addicted to the nicotine gum and later to tobacco products. Sindhu Naik of non-profit Karnataka State Council for Child Welfare (KSCCW) says, “Children can easily get this product which can lead to nicotine addiction. Besides, the chewing gums are flavoured and, unlike tobacco products, do not smell. This makes it difficult for parents to check if their children are using the gum.” KSCCW floated an online petition against the product in mid-January.
Their concerns might not be unfounded. While there is no data available on the impact the ITC campaign has had on youngsters, most paan shop owners Down To Earth spoke to said the demand for the product has gone up since the advertisements started in January. “On an average, I sell 10 KwikNic packets to children every day,” says Shyam Singh, a paan shop owner in South Delhi.
While there are no conclusive studies on the impact of nicotine gums, doctors warn that prolonged use of the product can increase blood pressure, hair loss and tooth decay. It can also lead to sleeping disorders.
In the right direction
Acting on a KSCCW complaint over the sale of KwikNic at grocery stores and paan shops, Karnataka joint food safety commissioner Jayakumar says he has asked ITC to withdraw products from the market. “If they do not follow the instruction, we will conduct raids and seize the products from the market. Both advertising in popular media and selling nicotine gums at grocery shops are illegal,” he says.
The Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI), a self-regulatory body, also has registered a case against ITC because advertising nicotine products is against ASCI guidelines. “A complaint was lodged against the advertisement. A decision has been taken. Now the company will be asked if it wants to challenge the decision. The whole process takes two months,” says an ASCI official.
An ITC spokesperson told says their operations are legal and they got the manufacturing licence from the joint commissioner of Food and Drug Administration, Nagpur. The tobacco company has also managed to get clearances to manufacture the nicotine gum at the Nagpur plant of confectionery giant Candico. The candy manufacturer’s website reads: “With over 2 billion confectionery products sold every year, Candico has been making millions of children smile.”
Maharashtra Drug and Food Commissioner Mahesh Zagade says there is nothing illegal about the licence. “Government of India has registered nicotine gum as a drug and it is the duty of the state to give licences, if someone applies for it,” he says. When asked if it was legal to sell drugs at paan and grocery shops, he said he was not aware that such sale was happening and that “action will be taken against them”.
Drug officials at the Centre, however, are not sure about the validity of the product. L Swasthicharan, chief medical officer with the Directorate General of Health Services, says he wrote a letter to the Drug Controller General of India on December 6 last year seeking clarification on the validity of the product and its advertisement. “I have asked whether it is registered as food item or as a drug. If it is a drug, can a tobacco company produce nicotine replacement therapy drug? Whether it would be sold as an over the counter drug or a prescribed drug? Can it be sold at shops? Is its advertisement legal?” says Swasthicharan. “A response is awaited.”
G N Singh, the Drug Controller General of India, says advertisement of nicotine-based products in the market is prohibited. He maintains he is not aware that ITC is running an advertisement campaign for KwikNic.
Bhavna Mukhopadhyay, executive director of non-profit Voluntary Health Association of India, says KwikNic advertisement by ITC is a clear violation of Section 5 of the Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003, which bans the advertisement of tobacco products, including surrogate advertisement, except at shops that sell tobacco products. Mukhopadhyay points out that the advertisement features ITC logo, which is illegal because it amounts to surrogate advertising as ITC is primarily a tobacco manufacturer.
The company has refuted the claim. “KwikNic advertisements are not advertisements for any brand of cigarettes. These advertisements do not show or make any reference to cigarettes or cigarette brands. Please also note that advertisement of nicotine gums is not prohibited by law,” ITC spokesperson said.
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