Trial By Fire for Smokers

Trial By Fire for Smokers
Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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In popular culture, the mood against tobacco has turned irreversibly

ON SEPTEMBER 1ST, cigarette packets in India will have brand new horrific images of what tobacco can do to you. Earlier too, the photos that stared at smokers as they went for a cigarette were not pleasant sights. One showed enormous red boils on the side of a man’s neck, while another had a gaping white wound on the throat. The two new images now, the first of which will be in use for a year followed by the next, are the most repulsive yet. The first has the entire side lower half of a woman’s face starting from her lower lip spliced and stretched open in folds as if by an alien organism. And the other has a man whose jaw has been eaten away by cancer and the cells seem to have bunched together in an effort to explode from the part below his ear.

These images will occupy 85 per cent of the packet’s face. Underneath will be the words ‘Tobacco Causes Cancer’ and, for the first time ever, will also carry a helpline message, ‘Quit Today Call 1800-11-2356’. All this is apt in the war against tobacco that has been going on for the last few decades, since it became clear how vicious it is. The question still remains, though: why not just ban tobacco altogether if everyone knows that it is a killer? The reasons cited are that it affects the livelihood of people who depend on the business and—probably the bigger one—that it brings in enormous tax revenues for the state. Also, the problem with a total ban on tobacco is that it will just lead to the business going underground. There is some merit in the strategy of taxing it heavily while increasing awareness. And so for governments, it is a river of gold that is morally correct to be widened at will. As per The Tobacco Institute of India, the nation made Rs 7,651 crore in 2006-07 by taxing cigarettes, but by 2016-17, the figure had reached Rs 28,489 crore. The increasing repulsiveness of the images that the Government puts on cigarette packets is perhaps to balance out its own guilt in being a partner in this trade.

This is especially problematic given the scale of usage in India. The Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS 2), which recently came out with its latest findings for the year 2016-17, offered the following highlights:

• 19.0 per cent of men, 2.0 per cent of women and 10.7 per cent (99.5 million) of all (Indian) adults currently smoke tobacco.

• 29.6 per cent of men, 12.8 per cent of women and 21.4% (199.4 million) of all adults currently use smokeless tobacco.

• 42.4 per cent of men, 14.2 per cent of women and 28.6 per cent (266.8 million) of all adults currently use tobacco (smoked and/or smokeless tobacco).

That is, roughly one-fifth of all Indians consume tobacco. The survey also showed that about 90 per cent of all current smokers thought that the habit caused serious illness. About 55 per cent had plans to quit and 60 per cent of cigarette smokers had thought of quitting because of warning labels, an argument perhaps for the necessity for such images on packets. Percentagewise, between GATS 1, which came in 2009-10, and GATS 2, the prevalence of tobacco usage had decreased by 6 per cent. The total number of tobacco users between those two time periods came down by 8.1 million. It sounds promising until you consider that there are still over 260 million users in India. As a strategy, taxing tobacco out of people’s lives is moving at glacial pace. The Government, however, won’t be complaining so long as the money pours in.

Tobacco is overwhelmingly associated with everything from cancer to heart disease among Indians. One of the most high-profile recent victims of tobacco use has been former Union Minister Sharad Pawar. For a long time, as he suffered from oral cancer, it was kept out of the public sphere. Once he was cured, Pawar started speaking about it and is now a voice against tobacco consumption. The late RR Patil, who Pawar appointed as home minister when his party ruled Maharashtra, died of the same ailment and was also a tobacco chewer.

In popular culture, the mood against tobacco has turned irreversibly. Movies rarely glamorise smoking nowadays, something that was de rigueur a couple of decades ago. Rajinikanth and his on-screen cigarette tricks are responsible for a vast number of Tamilian youth taking to smoking. But in the mid 2000s, he suddenly stopped doing it, even though he remained a chain smoker. In 2012, after a series of major illnesses, he confessed that it was a result of smoking and asked his fans to give it up. Another striking India-specific change in attitudes towards tobacco can be seen in spiritual leaders. Nowadays, you would be hard put to find a godman who will exhibit a tobacco habit. But it wasn’t so in the past. An anecdote about Swami Vivekananda, as recounted by Swami Shuddhananda, one of his disciples who went on to become president of the Ramakrishna Mission, is telling: ‘It was in one of the rooms of this garden-house that I talked directly with Swamiji for the first time. Swamiji was then sitting within and I went and prostrated myself before him. There was nobody else in the room. Suddenly, I do not know why, Swamiji asked me. “Do you smoke?” I replied, “No”, to which Swamiji replied, “Very well, smoking is not good. I am also trying to leave it off.”’