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Gutkha ad riles govt

New Delhi, Oct. 18: The Union health ministry is considering legal action against what health officials say are misleading advertisements on tobacco issued by arecanut and tobacco industry associations.

The advertisements that have appeared in recent weeks seem to question a government ban on the sale of gutkha — a powder mix of raw spices, arecanut, and tobacco — imposed so far by 14 states across India.

The sale of gutkha has been banned under rules issued by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India in August 2011 that prohibit the addition of tobacco or nicotine in food. Several high courts responding to petitions filed by industry associations have upheld the ban.

But the Central Arecanut and Cocoa Marketing and Processing Cooperative, the Smokeless Tobacco Association, and the All-India Katha Factories Association have jointly issued advertisements that claim that 40 million would lose their livelihood “because 14 states in India believe cigarettes are healthy”. The advertisements say farmers in seven states cultivating more than 700,000 hectares “face suicidal consequences” after the ban on gutkha.

“We believe these are misleading claims — and we’re considering action against the associations,” said Amal Pushp, director of tobacco control in the Union health ministry.

Pushp said the claims violate two sections of the food safety rules relating to misleading claims. “We’re now trying to determine what specific route (of action) to take,” he said, indicating that the ministry could take the association to court or lodge a complaint.

Public health officials believe gutkha-chewing has spread over the years and tobacco-use surveys suggest that about 8 per cent of adults in India chew tobacco-laced powders.

The industry associations had petitioned high courts in Bihar, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan, but the courts have upheld the ban on the sale of gutkha.

“What are the associations running an advertising campaign against court observations — they should appeal against the court decisions if they want,” Pushp said.

“Instead of following food safety rules, they’re running a misinformation campaign through these ads,” Bhavna Mukhopadhyay, executive director of the non-government Voluntary Health Association of India, said in a statement today.

The advertisements claim that farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bengal, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Tamil Nadu will be affected by the ban.

Bengal has not imposed the ban on gutkha yet, but has received representations and appeals from sections of the medical community and public health activists to introduce the ban.

“We’re hoping the ads will not deter the remaining states from moving forward and banning gutkha,” said Monika Arora, a tobacco control specialist at the Public Health Foundation of India.

“Action against the industry associations could also be taken up under consumer laws as the ads mislead consumers,” said Amit Yadav, a legal consultant with PHFI.