Editorial: Discouraging cigarette sales

f cigarettes in the loose, and raise the minimum age from 18 to 21 for the sale of tobacco products, clearly reflects the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s steely determination to wage an all-out war against tobacco consumption. These are commendable initiatives that would go a long way in preventing children from taking up cigarette-smoking and forcing existing users to quit. Tax rates on tobacco products were increased steeply in the last budget, and, beginning April 2015, graphic pictorial warnings will statutorily occupy at least 85 per cent of the front and back of all tobacco packages. Unlike in the developed countries, increasing the cost of cigarettes by itself will, in most cases, fail to be a big deterrent in India. They will continue to remain affordable to even young children and low-income individuals so long as cigarettes can be bought as single sticks. The only way to make higher pricing impinge on consumption is by selling them in packets of 10 or 20; it will make experimentation and initiation by children more difficult. After all, the 15-24 year age group constitutes over 27 per cent of consumers of tobacco (in all forms) in India. The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control “prohibits” the sale of cigarettes individually or in small packets as it “increases affordability”.

Though the FCTC prohibition is limited to minors, there is no reason why its scope cannot be widened to include others. India has done it before by going beyond the FCTC move and banning the sale of tobacco products within a 100-metre radius of any educational institution. Besides making cigarettes unaffordable, the purpose of pictorial warnings will be served only when smokers are compelled to buy them in packets. A combination of higher prices and pictorial warnings is bound to reduce tobacco consumption and the number of users. Unfortunately, the Ministry has failed to go the whole hog and confined its focus to cigarettes. So, there is a real possibility of a sizeable number of youth and low-income individuals turning to bidis and tobacco chewing. Bidis account for nearly 85 per cent of all tobacco smoked in India, and 52-70 per cent of all bidis sold are not taxed. Despite a ban on the sale of single cigarettes being in place since 1999 in Mexico, compliance is poor. There is little chance that it will be any different in India. Except in enclosed spaces, enforcement of the ban on smoking in public places is nearly non-existent in India. This is the case too with the sale of pan masala containing tobacco in most of the States that have proscribed it. Prohibiting sale in loose quantities will come to naught without strict enforcement.

Published in The Hindu on November 29, 2014