Two non-government organisations (NGOs) are in the process of moving an appeal before the Supreme Court for India to enact a cigarette ban, in the wake of the Government’s prohibition of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS).
Vaping became illegal in India in September with the promulgation of an ordinance by the Union Government, which has since received a nod from MPs in the Lok Sabha. The ban prevents “production, manufacturing, import/export, transport, sale, distribution, storage and advertising related to e-cigarettes.”
Even before the e-cigarette ban came into force, concerns were expressed about the potential ramifications of such a prohibition in the country’s fight against tobacco use which claims as many as twelve lakh lives in India every year. Many tout the value of e-cigarettes as a tool for smoking cessation (although this has been disputed by the Government).
With the e-cigarette ban as precedent, Delhi-based NGO United Residents Joint Action (URJA) and Hyderabad-based VchangeU are planning to move before the Supreme Court in search of a ban on traditional forms of cigarettes to be enacted in the mould of the e-cigarette ban.
The late URJA chief executive officer and founder of NGO Citizens’ Alliance Ashutosh Dikshit instigated the campaign for a cigarette ban following the Government’s decision to ban e-cigarettes, but died due to cancer earlier this year whilst still sending correspondence on the issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The campaign is being continued in his stead, with URJA and VchangeU soliciting the involvement of other NGOs and civil society organisations in their campaign to ban traditional cigarettes.
“If e-cigarettes can be banned, so can traditional tobacco burning cigarettes and beedis – which are categorically agreed to cause cancer or such diseases that result in deaths,” said VchangeU president and founder Vijay Bhasker Yetapu. “Health ministry figures say that twelve lakh deaths are reported each year by tobacco smoking. No such figure or linkage is yet medically or scientifically established as regards to the use of e-cigarettes. Thus, it is imperative that this ban acts as a viable precedent to ban cigarettes as well, at the very least.”
The NGOs, in addition to a traditional cigarette ban, would file a class action lawsuit seeking for compensation to be paid to the tune of Rs 5 lakh to those affected by tobacco-related illness, in order to remunerate their medical costs borne. In addition, Rs 10 lakh would be paid to those who have lost a breadwinner to the effects of tobacco use.
This, the NGOs said, is especially necessary in view of the fact that government-owned institutions own stakes in some tobacco companies. For example, as of the end of June, state-owned entities and the Government of India owned 28.4 percent of the Indian Tobacco Company. This, The Print said, “raises questions about a potential conflict of interest in the ban on e-cigarettes” – and is in the crosshairs of those seeking to file suit before the Supreme Court.
“A government that profits from the sale of cigarettes promotes addiction,” commented URJA Atul Goyal. “Addiction causes fatalities. By the Government’s own assessment, twelve lakh deaths occur each year and in effect government holds liability for these deaths. “Since the government has been earning dividends for such sales that has promoted and caused deaths, it has a social responsibility to offer compensation to those suffering or the families of the dead due to cancer or smoking-related diseases.
“At the outset, the suit demands that the sixty lakh people who have died during the tenure of the current government over the last five years of its tenure should be compensated. The class action suit will demand Rs 3 lakh crores be kept aside as a pool for disbursement to those affected and those who implead in the suit.”
Even as fewer Indians smoke, many continue to engage in the practice. At present, fourteen percent of adults use smoking tobacco. It is unsurprising, therefore, that tobacco use is the fourth leading cause of death in the country. The exchequer’s health is also adversely affected. Bidis alone cost the country’s coffers Rs 800 billion, while the total costs of tobacco is estimated at Rs 1.04 trillion.
While an outright traditional cigarette ban may encounter difficulties, such as the upspring of a black market, it is encouraging that steps are being taken to encourage the Government to crack down on tobacco. The focus on regulating e-cigarettes in recent years, culminating in the ban, could be perceived as a misplaced priority amidst the number of lives being lost and the proliferation of smoking-related illnesses throughout the country. As to whether a suit of this nature will be successful remains to be seen – but it is a step towards holding the Government to account in their handling of the country’s tobacco menace.
This is not to say that the Government has not taken steps against Big Tobacco. As previously noted by Health Issues India, “graphic health warnings on tobacco product packaging, bans on smoking in most public places, a toll-free quitline and Centre-run anti-tobacco campaigns have all contributed to a noticeable decline in the number of India’s smokers.” Such measures have arrested global headlines and elicited the ire of the tobacco industry. But more can be done – and with the focus of the Government’s regulatory zeal ostensibly being focused on e-cigarettes, ensuring that traditional tobacco does not escape their crosshairs is a public health necessity.