Time to pay up

It is high time cigarette companies, rather than taxpayers, paid for cancer treatment the world over

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

We take life for granted because that is all we see around us, till death steps in to remind us how easy it is to take life away. The tobacco industry is not dying, but those who smoke are. Slowly but surely they are killing themselves to fill the coffers of the companies that produce the little white sticks filled with tobacco. Smoking does not kill, the cancer it causes does and cancer and smoking are compatible. To quote a popular cigarette advertisement in India, they are "made for each other".

Earning profits by selling a legal narcotic makes good business sense to some but spending taxpayers money on medical care to foot cancer treatment bills does not make financial or even administrative sense. It is all very well to say that a smoker is responsible for his own cancer and should be left to die to pay for his misdeeds but then why do governments jail drug pushers and raise special task forces to deal with drug barons?

The difference between tobacco and heroin is that one is a legal narcotic and the other is not and the similarity between a junkie and a smoker is that both face severe health problems and sometimes even death. Therefore the recently concluded agreement in Florida in the USA is a very mild punishment indeed for tobacco firms, a gentle tap on the shoulder rather than a slap on the face.

Under the terms of the deal Florida will get US $ 11.3 billion over 25 years, with $ 1 billion due by September 1998. In addition companies will take down billboards from mass transit systems and in stadiums. There is euphoria in the American Cancer Society as tobacco companies will now be funding anti-smoking campaigns, also vending machines will be banned in areas where children have access to them.

While the agreement deserves to be applauded there may not be sufficient reason for euphoria on a global scale in fact there could be very serious side-effects for Asian countries in this entire deal.

Most US tobacco firms sell their products abroad, in fact a major portion of sales is overseas. There is also no dearth of smokers or a potential market overseas. According to some estimates, 120,000 people die prematurely every year, due to smoking related causes in the UK alone. The three tobacco giants in the USA--Philip Morris, RJR Nabisco and Britain's BAT industries have large and fast growing operations in other countries.

There is growing fear in the US that these and other firms may seek greener pastures overseas specially in Asia to compensate for loss of profits in the home country. And the settlement has no provision for checks on their activities abroad. There is no guarantee that tobacco giants will not aggressively target children for example in Bangladesh, India and Thailand. The track record of tobacco companies and their marketing strategies has been suspect.

While China is one country that is gearing up to do something about it the government in India is strangely silent on this issue. Should India then be complacent and depend upon the recommendations of a White House task force set up in the US to examine how tobacco firms sell their wares abroad, or should a similar agreement be thrashed out here before it is too late.

There are moves in Europe too to restrict tobacco advertising so why should India lag behind?

Let us look at the Indian situation. As a shareholder pointed out at a meeting of stockholders' of the India Tobacco Company (ITC), a name almost every Indian smoker and stock market enthusiast is familiar with, that the tobacco giant should focus elsewhere rather than on its core business of selling cigarettes. Awareness therefore exists at the level of the public, does the required level of concern exist among public representatives?
Let us take the case of Delhi. While it is impossible in Delhi for a youngster to purchase alcohol why are there no laws to prevent the sale of cigarettes to children? What is worse is that one finds the retailing of cigarettes is left to children at times. Can there be no law to check this phenomenon?

Tobacco is also consumed in other forms in India. It is chewed along with calcium carbonate, mixed with betelnut and sold in pouches as masala , smoked in the form of bidis and even marketed for consumption along with betel leaves essence and fragrance added for special effects as paan .

One reason for the government's silence could be that it realises a sizeable revenue from the industry. But if tobacco sales are regulated and related products are priced higher would it not be possible from the revenue generated to create better medical facilities? Even the sale of medicines and their launch into the market is subject to a series of stringent checks and controls. These are products that cure ailments rather than cause them, then why should a product that endangers health be sold openly and freely?

This is a question that the government must resolve. What is worse time is running out and a decision has to be taken fast. Must we condemn another generation of misguided teenagers to follow in the footsteps of the Malboro man only to discover that smoking does not lead to the mythical canyon of gold, but to the cancer ward. They say after a smoke one feels like a new man, the problem is the new man now wants a cigarette and unless the government decides to clamp down on this legal narcotic it will continue to claim victims amongst our youth.

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