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OPINION : Towards a tobacco-free society



By Md. Imran Ali

Tobacco use is the reason for a number of chronic diseases, including cancer, respiratory and lung diseases and cardiovascular diseases. Tobacco has been proven to be a confirmed cancer causing substance by World Health Organization (WHO) nearly 30 years back.


India is the second largest producer and consumer of tobacco in the world. No wonder the country has the highest number of oral cancer cases in the world. Every day, over 2,500 Indians die due to tobacco related diseases. Apart from the smoked forms that include cigarettes, bidis and cigars, a plethora of smokeless forms such as gutka, khaini, mawa, lal manjan, gul and mishri exist in the country.

The Global Adult Tobacco Survey India, conducted in 2009-2010 as a household survey of persons aged 15 and above, revealed that more than one-third (35%) of adults in India use tobacco in some form or the other. The estimated number of tobacco users in India is 274.9 million, of which 163.7 million are users of smokeless tobacco, 68.9 million are only smokers and 42.3 million users of both smoking and smokeless tobacco. The prevalence of overall tobacco use among males is 48 percent and that among females is 20 percent. On an average, a daily cigarette smoker in India smokes 6.2 cigarette sticks per day, and a daily bidi smoker smokes 11.6 bidi sticks per day. One-fourth of daily cigarette smokers smoke more than 10 cigarettes per day, and more than half the daily bidi smokers smoke more than 10 bidis per day.

The prevalence of tobacco use in Odisha stands at 46.2 percent and is higher than the national average. Half or more of daily tobacco users in Odisha started daily tobacco use before reaching the age of 18. In the coastal areas of Odisha, females smoke cheroot (called chutta) in a reverse manner (i.e. with glowing end inside the mouth). The smoking in public places is common and use of gutka is widely prevalent despite the ban on it. The tobacco related diseases are rising alarmingly in the state.

Tobacco use is a major preventable cause of premature death and disease. Comprehensive tobacco control is the single most cost effective, economically viable and practical approach to prevent this tragedy.

After sustained advocacy by social groups, followed by a petition in the High Court of Odisha, Government of Odisha imposed a complete ban on gutkha and pan masala in the state on January 1, 2013. Tobacco manufacturing companies the filed a writ in the High Court with a prayer not to include “zarda” within the notification with senior advocate and Member of Parliament Pinaki Mishra as its counsel. The zarda company argued that zarda cannot be banned under the FSS Act as it does not come under food. However, it is clear that zarda does not have any other use except mixing with pan and pan is a food because of the presence of calcium. The case is now sub judice. If the Union government includes smokeless tobacco in the food items list with an amendment, there will be end to the debate. Zarda can be put to dustbin for public health as it is a undoubtedly a tobacco products with nicotine.

In 2011, the Odisha High Court had also disposed of a PIL with an order to make OMFED booths tobacco-free but the order has been observed more in its breach. OMFED booths, in fact, have become smoking hubs, selling more of tobacco products than milk and milk products for which they were set up in the first place.

The government of India has passed an Act named “The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, (CTPA) 2003. Section 4 of COTPA prohibits smoking in any public place and Section 6 restricts access of minors to tobacco products by banning the sale to and by minors.

The objective of these Sections of COTPA is to keep the educational institutions tobacco free, to prevent minors from the harmful effects of tobacco products and creating smoke free public places. Violation of the said Sections invites penalty up to Rs. 200. Under the above mentioned sections, it is mandatory for all the public places to have No Smoking Signage and every educational institute needs to display a board on its boundary wall mentioning that sale of tobacco within 100 yards is a punishable offence. But unfortunately, tobacco free educational campuses have remained a pipedream despite these legal provisions.

COTPA also prescribes specific health warning to be placed in all packets of tobacco products. However, most foreign brand cigarettes do not obey Indian legislation and do not have that specific health warning in their products. Bidi, being a locally available product, also does not have such warning and affects the poor masses.

What particularly irritates me is the use of the brand name ‘Tiranga’ to sell a pan masala. Available evidence suggests this is a leading pan masala brand. ‘Tiranga’, our national flag, is our pride. How can it be named for a harmful product like pan masala?

[The author is a Bhubaneswar based anti-tobacco campaigner who, on behalf of his organisation Nasha Mukti Yuba Sankalp (NMYS), had filed the PIL in the Odisha High Court that led to the ban on manufacture and sale of tobacco products in the state. He can be reached at[email protected]]