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Stub out tobacco donations to political parties, health activists say

Bindu Shajan Perappadan


Concern for public health goes up in smoke

India’s leading cigarette manufacturer, ITC Ltd, made financial contributions of Rs. 6.78 crore in the last two years to all major political parties in the country, causing public health activists here to question the possible interference of tobacco companies “in the Central government’s efforts to bring in tougher anti-tobacco laws in the country.”

Figures disclosed by ITC Ltd — and released recently by activists as part of their campaign against tobacco — note that the company paid the Indian National Congress (Rs. 3 crore), the Bharatiya Janata Party (Rs. 2.50 crore), the Samajwadi Party (Rs. 0.42 crore), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (Rs. 0.33 crore), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam ( Rs. 0.22 crore), the Shiv Sena (Rs. 0.17 crore) and the Nationalist Congress Party (Rs. 0.14 crore) in the last two years (2010-2011).

“What does it mean when India’s largest cigarette manufacturer donates money to all the major political parties in the country? It means that it is trying to enhance its trade and dilute any policies that the political parties might bring in to curb its sales and profit. We are opposed to this conflict of interest and in this case the main casualty is public health,” said Amit Yadav, lawyer with the Public Health Foundation of India, a non-government organisation working in the area of tobacco control.

“Besides this, the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) — a global health treaty that India ratified in February 2004 — requires that signatories in setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control should act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law. This is as per Article 5.3 of the FCTC,” said Bhavna Mukhopadhyay, executive director with non-government organisation Voluntary Health Association of India.

Responding to the allegations, ITC’s corporate communications vice-president Nazeeb Arif says, “Article 5.3 of FCTC does not say anything about donations from ‘tobacco’ firms. You may also note that FCTC is not the law of the country.” He adds: “ITC, like other responsible corporate, has made contributions to political parties in a transparent manner.”

Mr. Yadav concedes that “there isn’t anything illegal about what the company is doing” but says the fact that “the government is taking money from ITC also goes against its talk of trying to bring more stringent tobacco control policies.”

Pointing the rampant abuse of tobacco and its rising health ramifications, health activist and Mumbai Tata Memorial Hospital’s leading cancer surgeon Dr. Pankaj Chaturvedi said: “It is for the government to take a stand here and refuse monetary help from organisations [Indian or foreign] that deal with goods detrimental to public health. You can’t have the goodwill and monetary help of the tobacco industry and form policies against them. The practice is not illegal it is just unethical. Here we aren’t targeting only one organisation. The government has to take the side of public health and work for the common man.”

“The Central government is now actively looking into the question of government firms investing in tobacco companies,” said a senior health official who, however, refused to comment on political parties getting money from tobacco manufacturers. As on March 31, 2011, five of the top ten shareholders of ITC were government insurance companies including the Life Insurance Corporation of India.

Mr. Arif, however, insists criticism of ITC is misplaced. “In India, cigarettes constitute only 15 per cent of tobacco consumed — the rest comprising chewing tobacco, beedis etc — but contribute to more than 75 per cent of taxes from this sector. There is also evidence of a nexus between international cigarette companies and organised smuggling, especially in developing countries. Such growth in the illegal industry in cigarettes robs the national exchequer of potential taxes apart from offering inferior quality products. India now ranks 6th globally in cigarette illicit trade [domestic illegal and contraband] and has one of the highest growth rates which increased by 58 per cent over the period 2004- 2009 while the world market witnessed a decline of 4.2 per cent over the same period. As per industry estimates, revenue losses on account of this are estimated to be Rs. 3,000 crore per annum. The creation of strong Indian cigarette brands has succeeded in curtailing the huge inflow of smuggled foreign cigarettes into the country,” he argues.

He notes that if tobacco control is the objective, then duty-free sales of cigarettes need to be banned as they enable the unscrupulous diversion of such cigarettes into the domestic market, once again robbing the Indian exchequer of taxes as well as the Indian farmers of their livelihoods.

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