Health activists are understandably upset with the Karnataka High Court ruling that allows cigarette companies to put smaller pictorial warnings on their packs. While upholding the rules that said pictorial warnings had to take up 40% of the pack-size, according to a news report in The Hindu, Justice BS Patil ruled against the 2014 dictum that raised this to 85% on grounds that these had been made unilaterally by the health ministry and were a violation of Article 77 (conduct of business of the Government of India), apart from saying the parliamentary committee on subordinate legislation had not yet examined the proposal and that the labour ministry was against this since it would hurt the beedi industry. Justice BV Nagarathna, on the other hand, felt it did not violate Article 77 but the rules violated Article 19(1)(g) or the right to practice any occupation, trade or business.
While the judgment will almost certainly be challenged in the Supreme Court, what is worrying is the government’s—both the Centre and states—attitude towards tobacco. While successive governments keep hiking cigarette duties—they pay an excise duty of around 50% right now—beedis get taxed at around 2-3% and chewing tobacco pays around 5-6%, and while VAT rates differ from state to state, they are roughly 26% for cigarettes and 8-10% for beedis and chewing tobacco. As a result, while the share of cigarettes in total consumption of tobacco has halved from around 20% in the early 1980s, there has been little drop in overall consumption. While various ministries, such as the labour one cited in Justice Patil’s judgment, are in favour of less restrictions on beedis and chewing tobacco on grounds of protecting the interests of millions engaged in tobacco cultivation/processing, the fact is that the health-costs from tobacco use are spiralling.
Though the focus of anti-tobacco activities is cigarette companies, the damage from beedis and chewing tobacco is far greater since 4-5 times more people consume these. And, as a recent PIL on tobacco in the Supreme Court points out, the health-costs of tobacco are probably greater than the total health spending by the central and state governments on all diseases. In 2011, the PIL says, the costs of tobacco-related health issues, including the death of more than 10 lakh people a year—that’s one person every 30 seconds—added up to over Rs 1,00,000 crore, or 1.2% of GDP in that year. Between the Centre and the state governments, India spends around 0.9% of GDP on all manner of health issues, not just those related to tobacco. There are, in addition, high costs in terms of environmental degradation since tobacco requires large quantities of wood for curing.
No one expects the government to fix things in a hurry given the millions involved in the business, from farming to curing and making of tobacco products, but the problem is the government doesn’t even seem to be making a start at containing the problem and, over a period of time, reducing it. Which is why, the acreage under tobacco has risen from 3.5 lakh hectares across the country in 2001-02 to around 5 lakh hectares today, and production is up from 5.5 lakh tonnes to 8.4 lakh tonnes. It would be interesting to know if the government has a plan to contain tobacco and how it justifies allowing it to prosper with the 10 lakh deaths each year due to it.