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QUANTUM LEAP: MPs’ remarkable manifesto BACKING the tobacco industry

The latest report of the Committee on Subordinate Legislation, tabled in the Lok Sabha on March 15, is a remarkable document.

The committee was supposed to deliberate rules relating to the size of pictorial health warnings on tobacco packs, but it has ended up being an unabashed manifesto of the tobacco industry.

Cigarette companies, pan masala and gutka manufacturers, and beedi kings should be grateful to our lawmakers for so eloquently articulating their standpoint – be it the denial of a link between tobacco and cancer, or loss of business due to cigarette smuggling.

While glorifying the tobacco industry as an employment and revenue generator, the report makes a mockery of health concerns and desperately attempts to downplay – and even deny – the health impacts of tobacco.

While doing so, the MPs have accepted arguments put forth by the tobacco industry as ‘evidence’, but have dubbed research studies quoted by the Ministry of Health about tobacco-related diseases or tobacco’s link with cancer as ‘claims’.

The health ministry has been asked to produce more evidence about health impacts, while questionable surveys about health warnings being ineffective cited by the tobacco industry have been extensively quoted.

Parliamentarians want us to be convinced that tobacco is vital for the Indian economy and people’s wellbeing.

The report says: “Tobacco plays a very important role in economy supporting crores of livelihood and generating significant tax revenues and foreign exchange.”

It describes the central excise rate for cigarettes as “high and discriminatory” – an argument cigarette companies advance after every Budget.

As for its main task – examining the 2014 notification on increasing the size of pictorial warnings – the panel feels that larger health warnings on cigarette and beedi packs will be “too harsh” and will result in “flooding of the market with illicit cigarettes”.

As a token of consideration, the panel has suggested a marginal increase in the size of pictorial warnings from the present 40 to 50 per cent.

At the same time, it has recommended that pictorial warning rules for beedi, chewing tobacco, zarda and khaini should be relaxed.

The health ministry notification seeks an increase in the size of health warning to 85 per cent of principal area of a pack for all tobacco products.

The panel is particularly soft on the beedi industry, which finds solid representation on the panel itself (in the form of beedi baron-turned-MP Shyama Charan Gupta, among others).

Every page of the 109-page report has distinct pro-tobacco tone.

Tobacco industry’s propagandist arguments have been repeated ad nauseam, but deposition of the health ministry and health advocates is summarily dismissed in a few paragraphs.

Of 17 ‘stakeholders’ called to depose before the committee, as many as 13 represented the tobacco industry.

Curiously, the All India Beedi Federation has been listed as an NGO.

It is surprising that while the finance ministry has gone tough on tobacco – in successive Budgets as well as in proposed GST structure which talks of a ‘sin tax’ on tobacco – members of Parliament are trying to create roadblocks and singing paean to tobacco industry

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