State governments in India are cracking down on chewing-tobacco products. What were once a royal delight have since become a “health menace”. On October 2nd Himachal Pradesh became the 15th state in India to ban gutka, a form of chewing tobacco made with crushed betel nuts. More than half of all states have done likewise and many others, including Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, are planning to follow suit.
More Indians chew tobacco than smoke it, 26% compared to 14%. Gutka, in particular, is prevalent among children who get addicted thanks to easy access and dirt-cheap prices (1 rupee or 2 cents per sachet). This means India suffers from one of the highest rates of oral cancer in the world, as much as twice the global average. Of the annual 5.6m cancer deaths in India, a third can be blamed on tobacco use.
The central government stands accused of inaction, even though the Supreme Court issued several warnings. Non-governmental organisations had been lobbying for a ban for quite some time. Finally in August 2011 the Food Safety and Standard Authority, aware of the health ministry’s indecisive stand on the matter, issued regulations under which no foodstuff, including gutka, may contain tobacco. The central government’s orders followed in March and the states’ bans followed.
But the tobacco industry is not taking it lightly. Many have dragged the states to court. They claim that gutka falls under the 2003 Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products act, and cannot, therefore, be classified as foodstuff.
The bans are a crucial step forward, for the public-health campaigners. But challenges lie ahead. For instance, enforcement remains difficult—without a nation-wide ban, many users can get their fix from a neighbouring state quite easily. A recent report in the Lancet, a British medical journal, found that, on average, poor countries spend only $1 on tobacco control for every $9,000 they earn in tobacco taxes. According to the World Health Organisation many poor families spend up to 10% of their income on tobacco, leaving that much less to spend on education and health care. Any country’s health-care costs far outweigh the tax income raised through tobacco. A study by America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention showed that in 2011 American taxpayers paid $96 billion in health-care costs due to disease caused by smoking, while earning back only $20 billion in tobacco taxes. As their own health-care costs rise, Indian states could do worse than ensuring that the gutka ban stays and is enforced.
Also published on economist.com.
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