Tobacco: rules and practices

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Over the past decade or so, public health experts have drummed it in time and again that tobacco use in various forms is more dangerous than good. While the obvious impact on health from continued tobacco use either through chewing nicotine and tobacco products like gutka, kheini, paan or smoking cigarettes is there for all to see in terms of lungs infections including various forms of cancer, there are also other associated issues of social and personal appearance that most do not give thought to. Eating tobacco products leaves one with stained teeth and mouth while continuous spitting effectively means dirty surroundings. Ironically, the habit of eating paan and other tobacco products by ingestion which is mostly practiced in India and a few countries in Asia was considered a princely habit and one that was an elaborate exercise for reflecting social divisions: lower classes having to be content with tobacco leaf and bettle nut while the elite would have an array of condiments to aid taste buds. Outside of the few Asian countries, chewing tobacco products is not so much of a habit or comes with the connect of historical and social practices as it is in India and a few other countries. In many parts of North India, offering paan is a way of offering hospitality while it is common again for the offering to be made post a meal. Nearer home, the practice of offering paan to guests is akin to Meghalaya and parts of Assam while in Manipur, there was indeed a norm for visitors who drop in home to be offered a ngaanthak (hookah with nicotine) which in later times adapted to offerings of bidis and cigarettes. In present times of course, chewing paan is not limited to any occasion or particular timing of the day and despite an earlier ban on tobacco products in the state by banned armed groups and later by Government agencies, the truth is that the demand for these products has ensured a major open black market where every tobacco product is available for a steep price. The ban also means that various vigilante groups can happily go about its job of doing ‘social good’ by seizing the offending products and then setting them ablaze with much fanfare and media spotlight. Not many look at whether those who led such campaigns really do not touch tobacco products or if they intervene when their family members or those around them resort to their use.

With regard to the practice of smoking of tobacco products in the country, there are an array of laws applicable in the country with some being in practice for some years and others being added recently in a bid to address the public health and economic cost factor due to the resulting ailments resulting from smoking.  The Cigarettes (Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 1975, mandated specific statutory health warnings on cigarettes packs. This was the first legislation in the country regarding tobacco use and it took some time for the next comprehensive legislation to come into effect in 2003 with the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, called COTPA for short. This was to cover all products containing tobacco in any form with provisions that prohibited smoking in public places, ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship, ban on sale to and by minors and in an area within radius of 100 yards of any educational institutions, display of pictorial health-warning labels, and content regulation of tobacco products. By 2008, smoking in public places were banned across the country though one can smoke in one’s home or vehicle.

More rules have followed including stringent clamp downs on films showing smoking scenes. In fact, scenes that show smoking have to carry a disclaimer on screen about the detriments of cigarette smoking while films with smoking scenes have to carry a graphic imagery of the physical effects of smoking before their screening. Just a few days back, Woody Allen pulled out his latest film from theatres across India since he did not want the ‘distraction’ of disclaimers and ad inserts. While efforts to curb tobacco use in the country are needed, there ought to be a reality check on whether the laws in themselves help in the fight. More needs to be done in terms of cutting down on the productions stage along with creating awareness among the young today who are still to be in the grip of tobacco use.

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