Smokescreen

Comfort, unlike revenge, is not a dish best served cold. The recent finding of the World Health Organization, showing that the prevalence of smoking in India has gone down from 19.4 per cent in 2000 to 11.5 per cent in 2015, is just that - cold comfort. It is heartening that India is likely to become the only Southeast Asian nation to achieve WHO's target of a 30 per cent reduction in the prevalence of smoking by 2025. But what must not go unacknowledged is that the report does not take into account smokeless tobacco, which is the bigger scourge in the country. What is worrying is that the laws do not seem to be working that well either. In spite of a ban on the sale of food items with tobacco or nicotine, gutkha, khaini and zarda continue to be sold openly. This can only point to the tardy implementation of existing legislations. The news only gets bleaker when it comes to public awareness. A survey has shown that 31 per cent of smokers in India are unaware that smoking harms their health. Is there then a case for reimagining interventions that seem content with issuing pictorial warnings on cigarette packets? Data suggest that 85 per cent smokers in India consume bidis, which are more harmful than processed cigarettes. Yet, bidis are not only sold loose but also attract a negligible tax owing to extensive lobbying by influential manufacturers. A simple increase in the taxation on tobacco - the source product - by 10 per cent could significantly cut down both bidi and cigarette consumption.

  • Published 6.06.18
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Comfort, unlike revenge, is not a dish best served cold. The recent finding of the World Health Organization, showing that the prevalence of smoking in India has gone down from 19.4 per cent in 2000 to 11.5 per cent in 2015, is just that - cold comfort. It is heartening that India is likely to become the only Southeast Asian nation to achieve WHO's target of a 30 per cent reduction in the prevalence of smoking by 2025. But what must not go unacknowledged is that the report does not take into account smokeless tobacco, which is the bigger scourge in the country. What is worrying is that the laws do not seem to be working that well either. In spite of a ban on the sale of food items with tobacco or nicotine, gutkha, khaini and zarda continue to be sold openly. This can only point to the tardy implementation of existing legislations. The news only gets bleaker when it comes to public awareness. A survey has shown that 31 per cent of smokers in India are unaware that smoking harms their health. Is there then a case for reimagining interventions that seem content with issuing pictorial warnings on cigarette packets? Data suggest that 85 per cent smokers in India consume bidis, which are more harmful than processed cigarettes. Yet, bidis are not only sold loose but also attract a negligible tax owing to extensive lobbying by influential manufacturers. A simple increase in the taxation on tobacco - the source product - by 10 per cent could significantly cut down both bidi and cigarette consumption.

However, the roots of the public 'ignorance' go deeper. Steps to tackle the menace must include legal deterrents and take into consideration social and cultural conditions peculiar to India. While the overall prevalence of smoking has decreased, smoking has risen among urbane, young women. Could the shift be explained by the perception that smoking is one way for a woman to challenge entrenched patriarchal norms? Understanding behavioural traits in specific settings must also be integral to policy. It has been reported that 70 million women - many of them live in villages - consume smokeless tobacco. Peer pressure, daily rituals and misconceptions add to the complications. Research has found that adolescents often begin smoking in a bid to emulate friends while many believe that smoking fewer cigarettes is less dangerous than chain smoking. Policy interventions must ponder the entire gamut of issues - legal and socio-cultural - to be effective.

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