Spanish folly

When the Spanish found tobacco in America did they bite off more than they could chew? The debate still continues in the form of gutka in India

Published: Friday 15 May 1998

THE Spanish Conquistadors came to the New World in search of gold. They found tobacco instead, a cash crop which sold better than any other in history. It became a legal narcotic, the foundation of many a business empire. It also became a scourge let loose by the New World upon the old.

Humans have discovered many ways to partake of the active ingredient in tobacco -- nicotine -- which gives a high when inhaled after the leaves are burnt as in the form of a cigarette, or a pipe, or cigar. Another way of partaking of tobacco is by chewing it.

Gutka the hardcore powdered tobacco version, or pan masala its more refined cousin is today leading to speculation in industry circles with the new government chewing over the idea of formulating a plan of action to deal with all forms of chewing tobacco. But fears are already being expressed in the media and by the public at large that nothing will come of the exercise.

An expert committee set up in 1994 and headed by the Director General of Health Services, S P Agarwal, has called for a blanket ban on all chewing tobacco products. But the government seems to be dithering.

One of the main reasons for the government's ambivalence is that 50 million jobs are claimed to be supported by the industry. Millions of farmers as well as Gutka sellers depend upon it. Therefore any decision taken to ban tobacco products could have serious political repercussions for the ruling coalition.

However, gutka manufacturers allege that the government is playing into the hands of cigarette majors by banning chewing tobacco, specially at a time when the cigarette companies are poised to move into new market territory.

But curbs on the sale of gutka and chewing tobacco are more than welcome. There is no quality control in this business. Nobody knows what is being packed into those brightly painted pouches which circulate through pan (betel) shops the country over. While some tests on hamsters, conducted by the Gujarat Cancer and Research Institute, have revealed that gutka can lead to toxicity in genes and cancer, there have been no detailed studies on it.

The question is does the government pack the necessary punch needed to do all this in an unbiased manner, or will the powerful tobacco lobby manage to blow smoke into the eyes of government officials? In India what we are dealing with is an industry which as a whole pays excise duty to the tune of Rs 700 crore.

It is impossible to even assess the financial muscle of the tobacco industry in India. Even though between mouthfuls of spittle it is generally assumed that the industry has a turnover of more than Rs 1,400 crore annually.

In the corridors of power an industry of this size can wield the necessary clout it needs. It is already a foregone conclusion that while measures can be taken to curb the sale of cigarettes, limit the number of vendors and increase taxation on tobacco products, an outright ban appears unlikely.

Leaders in India need to take a lesson from the us government. The us officials have come up with a brilliant plan. Cigarette companies should be made to pay the medical bills of cancer patients. The premise on which this is based is simple. Since tobacco firms realise profits out of selling tobacco, which is believed to cause cancer, they should also pay for the clean up of the lungs they pollute.

But lungs differ from sewer lines. While it is possible for municipal corporations to clean up clogged drains, damaged lungs do not recover. Therefore what is being debated is the mode and the amount of payment. What tobacco companies are essentially required to do is to make reparations to their victims. For the government to make sure that the affected party is indeed a victim it has to lay down criteria for identifying such victims. Finally the victim has to be compensated in full.

If cigarette manufacturers can fund health programmes in a rich and prosperous country, then is it not high time that they fund health programmes and take care of cancer research in India? The same should apply to gutka manufacturers. They have made profits by selling gutka . They should now compensate for the damage.

Let us take the case of liquor. Like tobacco, liquor is supposed to be injurious to health. Therefore the government regulates the sale, purchase and auctioning of liquor. Minors cannot purchase it. No such curbs apply to the sale of tobacco products. Their sale must also be regulated. Tobacco products including cigarettes should not be sold to minors.

Like there are curbs on the advertisement of liquor, there should also be curbs on the advertisement of tobacco. The tobacco industry should also be taxed in such a manner that the money is diverted into setting up a fund which can be used to take care of the medical bills of those who get cancer as a result of smoking or chewing tobacco.

The best way to do away with tobacco is to create awareness against it and to prevent another generation from falling into the tobacco trap. Tobacco firms will not be able to sell their products if the markets for it does not exist.

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