It is difficult to start a nationwide “movement” against tobacco — as the Union health minister wishes to — without looking ineffectually holier-than-thou. It is all too easy for the medical to shade into the moral when it comes to questions of addiction or risky sexual behaviour. Most HIV/AIDS awareness programmes slip unthinkingly into sermons against promiscuity. And this sort of logic is only a step away from seeing disease and death as punishment for immorality. Woody Allen refused to show his last-but-one film in India because he did not want it to be marred by statutory warnings against smoking. It is important that people who are vested with the power to make such policies and laws are also able to think through these things without being simple-minded. Taking informed risks is sometimes the necessary flip side of adult freedoms, and the State must understand that in a mature democracy law, art and entertainment ought to have distinct ways of dealing with the medical and moral costs of addictive human behaviour.
So, when the Union health minister also suggests that schoolchildren should be roped in to persuade adults out of their tobacco-related bad habits, it is time to do some hard thinking — not only about the nature of addiction, but also about certain adult assumptions regarding the nature and function of children. There is a vast population of children in India who do not go to school, whose relationships with the adults around them are not quite Alice-in-Wonderland, and who may themselves be victims of different kinds of substance abuse. In many cases, the substance happens to be tobacco, although dendrite and cheap liquor are also common — all of which are used to dull hunger pangs. So, the perception of children as sweet and spotless saviours of imperilled adulthood is a fantasy that says more about the imaginary world of adult respectability than about the cohabitation of children and adults in the real world. But children do not have to be poor and unprotected by traditional parenting in order to be vulnerable to addictions that may not always involve a specific harmful ‘substance’. As eagerly sought-after consumers in a gleefully free market, children growing up in secure and comfortable homes are exposed to modes of persuasion through, say, advertising and entertainment on television every day that could induce profound changes in the way they use their minds, or treat and think about their bodies. From the size-zero comeliness of Princess dolls that literally cannot stand on their unnaturally small, stiletto-shod feet, to the implicit chauvinisms of Chhota Bheem and his peers, children already have a great deal to take upon themselves when they come back home from school for them to be burdened with the additional task of helping their parents to quit smoking.
Yet, here, too, to forbid by reflex, or censor and regulate from above, is no way out. Taking an unflinching look at adult needs and desires may be a more effective, though more challenging, approach to the problem.