Tobacco Lobby under Siege

Fast Forward towards Healthy India (Swasth Bharat)

Tobacco Lobby under Siege

Smokers, be ready to quit or pay through nose if caught blowing smoke rings in public.

Till Dr. Harshvardhan took the reins as union health minister, there was an unwritten advisory in Nirman Bhavan housing the ministry- ‘do not mess up too much with ‘almighty’ tobacco lobby and its trade’.

Things have toughened quite a lot for T- lobby, which called all the shots in the ministry, not too long ago. Under the present NDA dispensation, it seems to have lost all power to checkmate steps that might hit its trade. After steep hike in tax on cigarette in the budget, an exorbitant fine on public smoking may soon be in the offing. Though Rs 20,000 recommended as fine by a health ministry committee does not seem plausible but it sure would be enough to burn a very big hole in the pocket of smokers in public places.

Dr. Harshvardhan is known to be obsessively strident against tobacco products, especially cigarettes. He cannot bear the sight of anyone smoking. He is known to have stopped his car if he saw someone smoking in his way. He would go to the smoking pedestrian and cajole him not to play with his life. Dr. Harshvardhan has found in PM Narendra Modi, a force multiplier on this score. Sources in the ministry say Modi has given Dr. Harshvardhan a free hand to deal harshly with anything that hampers health of the country, quite in keeping with his tweet just a couple of days after being sworn in. He had tweeted thus- ‘On World No Tobacco Day, let’s pledge to spread awareness on the risks of tobacco consumption & work to reduce tobacco consumption in India.’ It was indication enough for the minister to go after tobacco lobby, so far dreaded by the minister.

With top legal eagles, political heavy weights cutting across political parties and bureaucrats being on the roll calls, earlier this lobby was so pampered that a cigarette honcho got ‘Padma Shree’ despite stiff opposition from anti tobacco organizations and appeal by them to erstwhile PM Manmohan Singh. This honcho being on the boards of many powerful media houses, media too was effectively muted. An anti- tobacco activist bureaucrat in Union Health Ministry, joint secretary Desi Raju, was butt kicked by outgoing health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. Earlier even health minister would be unequal to this lobby’s clout and would avoid taking it on headlong but not anymore.

The proposal that government is currently mooting is expected to adversely dent the cigarette trade. Due to hiking of duty on cigarettes, the lobby was already feeling the pinch. Under new proposal, sale of loose cigarettes may be banned. This is only one of the many harsh steps suggested by an expert panel set up by health ministry that the government may take sooner than later. Other recommendations include hiking age limit for smoking and escalating the fine for public smoking to Rs 20,000 from paltry Rs 200. The panel has also advised to make public smoking a cognizable offence.

These recommendations are likely to be part of the revised legislation being drafted by central government. The panel report also envisages higher penalty on manufacturers for violating packet pictorial warning rules. It has recommended scaling it up to Rs 50, 000 from mere Rs 5000. Such steps would reinforce the thinking that this government is really earnest about its professed ‘Swasth Bharat’( Healthy India)

The panel has also recommended raising the age limit for tobacco consumption to 25 years from 18 years, banning advertisements at sale point and boost the size of pictorial warnings to cover almost 80 per cent of packaging.

Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan constituted this panel to suggest amendments to the Cigarettes & Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003 (COTPA). He did this to make laws in keeping with the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which has laid down a set of universal standards to limit the use of tobacco worldwide. India has ratified the FCTC in 2004.The government has already moved on preparing a cabinet note based on the recommendations of the panel.

Sources said Dr. Vardhan has accepted the report. There may be some whittling down of most radical recommendations, namely, Rs 2000 fine for smokers in public places but it is certain that tobacco lobby is going to get a huge battering this time around.


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