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On No-Tobacco Day, Big Tobacco emerges winner; check out the lesson

Seven weeks ago, the home ministry revoked the Public Health Foundation of India’s (PHFI) FCRA clearance—this is critical for it to receive foreign donations for its work.

From PHFI losing its FCRA nod due to anti-tobacco lobbying to rise in tobacco cultivation, the lesson is quite clear. (Image: Reuters)

Seven weeks ago, the home ministry revoked the Public Health Foundation of India’s (PHFI) FCRA clearance—this is critical for it to receive foreign donations for its work—for diverting its funds for various ‘undesirable activities’ like lobbying the media, parliamentarians and the government (yes, the FCRA order mentioned lobbying the government) on tobacco control policy issues which is prohibited under FCRA. PHFI was also accused of, among others, incorrect declaration of Rs 43 crore that it got for anti-tobacco lobbying and for paying BBC World Services Trust Rs 10.8 crore.

On the lobbying, PHFI denied anything more than an outreach programme of its research on the ill-effects of tobacco—in the traditional sense, lobbying means making donations/payments to MPs to vote a certain way and to journalists for writing a certain way. On the Rs 43 crore, PHFI pointed to this actually being part of an anti-AIDS programme and, as for the money given to the BBC, it said this was part of a NACO AIDS-control project for which BBC created educational videos—since PHFI is actually a PPP in the health space set up by the government (the health secretary is on its board), it has all manner of testimonials from the government on its work, including on tobacco.

While the government is still to respond to PHFI’s reply, the fact that the health ministry has just asked John Snow International to perform PHFI’s function (using money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) on the Indradhanush vaccination campaign suggests the problem is indeed with the anti-tobacco activities—had the problem been with donations from foreign trusts/agencies like BMGF or their support to the vaccination project, the health ministry would not have been allowed to engage John Snow on this.

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What makes the FCRA action all the more worrying is that, just a few days after the action against PHFI became public, the Federation of All India Farmer Association (FAIFA) put up hoardings—one was put up outside the health ministry office in the capital—saying “we appreciate that government has heard our appeal and taken action against some NGOs … our fellow farmers have committed suicide due to their acts”.

While the government can legitimately deny it has been influenced by pro-tobacco organisations like FAIFA or the Tobacco Institute of India, what it does need to provide some clarity on is its tobacco policy. Given how, year after year, successive finance ministers raise duties on cigarettes and how it has pushed for pictorial warnings on cigarette packs (PHFI campaigned for this), it is natural to think government policy is to restrict tobacco usage due to its harmful health effects.

Yet, with very low/no taxation on bidis, chewing tobacco or loose tobacco for hookahs, the share of cigarettes in tobacco use has halved from 20% in the early 1980s—as a result, tobacco acreage is up from 3.5 lakh hectares in 2001-02 to 4.6 lakh hectares in 2014-15, and production from 5.5 lakh tonnes to 8.4 lakh tonnes. Given this, on No Tobacco Day, on May 31, it is fair to say Big Tobacco is winning the battle—if PHFI has been hit primarily for its anti-tobacco activities, it is symptomatic of this larger victory.

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