Dravid: The face the government is banking on
New Delhi, Sept. 5: India has set itself a target to cut tobacco consumption by almost a third by 2025 and plans to adopt Rahul Dravid as the brand ambassador for the campaign.
The country’s first-ever declaration of such a target comes at a time the impacts of the government’s multiple anti-tobacco initiatives over the past decade remain largely unevaluated.
The Union health ministry wants to reduce tobacco use in India by 15 per cent by 2020 from a baseline value in 2015, and by 30 per cent by 2025 from the same baseline, senior public health experts and ministry officials announced today.
To achieve this, the health ministry will press the finance ministry to impose higher taxes on tobacco products and work with the agriculture ministry and state governments to encourage farmers to shift from tobacco to other crops. It also wants cigarettes to be sold in plainer packages.
Reduction in tobacco use is among 10 targets the ministry has decided to adopt in line with a plan, proposed by member states of the World Health Organisation earlier this year, to reduce the global burden of non-communicable diseases.
The government’s existing anti-tobacco campaign in 42 districts will be expanded to cover all the districts in the country over the next four years, said C.K. Mishra, additional secretary in the health ministry.
While the alternative-crops plan has been discussed for more than a decade, health officials concede there has been little progress. A trial in Dharwad district of Karnataka has revealed that farmers prefer tobacco because of assured sales.
“We need market-support mechanisms for farmers to sell alternative crops,” said K. Srinath Reddy, a cardiologist and president of the Public Health Foundation of India, New Delhi, which is hosting an international conference called “The Endgame for Tobacco” here next week.
“Strategies to achieve these targets will require strong support from other ministries,” said a health official. The health ministry is, therefore, likely to request the cabinet secretary to establish a committee of secretaries to work on this plan.
Health ministers from 11 South Asian countries are expected to adopt the 10 voluntary targets at a ministerial meeting in New Delhi next week that will be attended by WHO director-general Margaret Chan.
“We should not underestimate the challenge for India,” Reddy said.
An estimated 270 million Indians either smoke or chew tobacco. Health experts estimate that nearly a million people die prematurely in India each year from causes related to tobacco consumption such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Since passing anti-tobacco legislation a decade ago, India has banned tobacco advertisements, public and indoor workplace smoking, and sales of gutka (chewable tobacco). It has introduced new pictorial warnings on cigarette packs, and on-screen warnings whenever movies depict tobacco use.
But health officials say the impacts of such initiatives on tobacco consumption remain unclear. India’s first nationwide survey of tobacco use, conducted in 2009, is expected to be followed up with a fresh survey only in 2014-15.
Non-communicable diseases will threaten the national economy, said Renu Garg, a regional adviser at the South East Asian Regional Office of the WHO. Garg cited a recent Harvard study that estimates that India could lose $3.9 trillion (about Rs 257 lakh crore) between 2012 and 2030 from non-communicable diseases.
“There are some examples from other countries of plans to virtually eliminate tobacco from society,” Reddy, the Public Health Foundation president, said.
Finland has set itself the target of reducing tobacco use by 95 per cent by 2040, he said, while New Zealand hopes to achieve this by 2025.