Health ministry fumes over ads terming gutkha ban unfair

Calls them misleading and unjustified

 
By Ankur Paliwal
Published: Thursday 17 September 2015

Advertisements issued by gutkha (a form of chewing tobacco) industry in the print and electronic media, terming the ban on it as unfair, has angered the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW). The ministry has called the advertisements misleading and unjustified.  It is also planning to take strict action against the industry for publishing such misleading information.

The advertisements are being published in leading news dailies and aired on television channels for over 15 days now. The industry, through these advertisement, questioned why the health ministry has not banned cigarette which also contains tobacco. “Over four crore (40 million) people have lost their livelihood because the 14 states which have banned gutkha believe that cigarettes are healthy,” it says. The advertisements have been issued jointly by Smokeless Tobacco Association, The Central Arecanut and Cocoa Marketing and Processing Cooperative Limited and All India Kattha Factories Association.

In its defence, the ministry on October 18 said that it chose to ban gutkha first as a higher number of people use it. “Of the 247.9 million tobacco users in India, 25.9 per cent consume smokeless tobacco while 14.9 per cent smoke tobacco,” says Amal Pushp, director with the health ministry. In the smokeless tobacco category,  18.4 per cent are women, while only 2.9 per cent of women smoke tobacco. Similarly, 16.1 per cent people in the age group 15 to 24 use smokeless tobacco while 5.3 per cent smoke tobacco, he adds.

Gutka Gutka

In its advertisements, the gutkha industry has also contended that when both cigarettes and tobacco are already regulated under the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) of 2003, then governments need not use the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) Act of 2011 to target gutkha. Pushp clarifies that FSSAI Act is being used to ban gutkha because it considers it as a food product. “Any food item containing any substance including gutkha and nicotine, which may be injurious to health, is prohibited under the Act. Unfortunately, cigarette is not a food item. Besides, there is no provision of ban under COTPA. We can only regulate, which is what we are doing with cigarettes,” he adds.

When asked, if the ministry is using the policy loophole to shield cigarette industry, Pushp says, “We have to go by the law and till now there is no provision under which cigarette could be banned. But we are equally concerned about the harmful effects of cigarette smoking and are trying to find out how it can be banned.” On why only 14 states have implemented the ban, he says that the ministry has written to the food commissioners of all the states to do so.

In the FSSAI Act, there is a provision of penalty of Rs 10 lakh against any person who publishes or is party to the published material which falsely represents a food item. The ministry is thinking to take action under this clause, he says.

Baseless claims

Meanwhile, non-profits, including Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI) and Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), have countered the claims being made by the tobacco industry in the advertisements. “The ads say that one pouch of gutkha contains 0.2 grammes of tobacco verses 0.63 grammes in cigarette. This is misleading because the size of the gutkha pouch varies from 1 gm to 3.5 gm. Besides, no authentic estimates of contents are available so far,” says Bhavna Mukhopadhyay of VHAI.

The ads further say that a cigarette has 4,000 chemicals while gutkha has only 3,000 chemicals. “Smokeless tobacco contains 3,095 chemicals, out of which 28 are carcinogenic. Even a single cancer causing chemical can cause disease, disability and death. So, it is immaterial to say that cigarette has more chemicals,” points out Monika Arora, director of health promotion and tobacco control at PHFI. The consumption of gutkha is making more than 15 million Indians impoverished every year due to high treatment costs, she adds.

The non-profits also pointed out that the figure of over 40 million people losing their jobs is also wrong. “According to 2004-05 estimates of the government, total employment in the formal sector by the tobacco industry was 7 million. Even if one adds the employment by the informal sector, it will not even come close to 40 million,” says Arora. She also challenged the claim that the farmers growing tobacco in around 700,000 hectares in the country are on the verge of suicide. “As per directorate of tobacco development, the area under cultivation for smokeless tobacco is just 40,000 hectares. Why not use this area to grow crops and feed the hungry in the country?” asks Arora. Experts also say that studies show that farmers get pittance for growing tobacco and the profit is mostly pocketed by the industry. “The industry is trying to hide behind the livelihood issue when it is only concerned with its profits which are seriously affected due to the ban of gutkha in 14 states,” says Mukhopadhyay.

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