Not enough to say ‘Tobacco kills’

| | in Oped

Keeping in mind the dichotomy that the tobacco industry is caught in (both in giving livelihood to millions of people and also taking away precious lives), there's a larger issue that needs to be fixed. A middle ground is needed

Just as the six-day global anti-tobacco conference opens on Monday in Noida, Atle Hetland, a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid, matter-of-factly asked: Why cannot the tobacco industry move to healthier products and help the tobacco growers find sustainable crops? We need alternative foods and beverages that are good for us, and make us happy and comfortable, so we don’t have to worry about all the risks of tobacco, he said.

It’s easier said than done, no doubt, given that the huge interest of the tobacco manufacturers is at stake and a large number of farmers are dependent on the industry. No doubt, the Federation of All India Farmer Associations (FAIFA) is demanding transparency and participation in the Conference of Parties (CoP), which is a meeting of the governing body of a 2003 World Heath Organisation (WHO) treaty on tobacco control — the WHO Framework Convention of Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC). The CoP will review the implementation of WHO-FCTC, as well as a second treaty, the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products.

The protest, though backed by tobacco companies (business chambers like Assocham and Ficci, which represent the tobacco industry, have  already written to the Health Ministry, asking it to go soft on FCTC treaty, by putting up farmers’ association as their front), cannot be called unjustified given that livelihoods are at stake. But tobacco is killing our youth, and steps must be taken to contain it.

India has the second largest number of tobacco users (275 million or 35 per cent of its adult population) in the world, out of which at least 10 lakh die every year from tobacco-related diseases. Tobacco use also imposes enormous health and economic costs on the country.

More than 4,000 different chemicals have been found in tobacco and tobacco smoke. More than 60 of these chemicals are known to cause cancer (carcinogens).

As per the WHO, smoking is one of the leading causes of preventable morbidity and mortality; and with about one billion smokers in the world, smoking kills six million every year, and some 600,000 die from hazards from passive smoke. Smokeless tobacco such as gutka and zarda is equally fatal.

Keeping in mind this dichotomy that the tobacco industry is caught in — both in giving livelihood to lakhs and taking away lives — there’s a larger issue that needs to be fixed. There is no denying the fact that the strong tobacco lobby has been using tobacco farmers as a shield to derail the country’s tobacco control measures, as has also been noted by Sumitra Pednekar, wife of Maharashtra Minister Satish Padnekar, who died of oral cancer in 2011, and many other anti-tobacco activists.

But while the Government has been slow in strengthening the legislations to curb tobacco consumption, just remember its reluctance to enforce the 85 per cent pictorial warning on tobacco items. Its implementation has been utterly poor.

What the Government has also not done is in all these years amidst the debate on livelihood and health hazardous aspect of tobacco is to chart out a plan to gradually shift tobacco growers and others who depend on income from the industry, to some alternative crops or livelihood. According to the Central Tobacco Research Institute (CTRI), a remunerative cropping system rather than a sole crop can be a viable alternative to the tobacco crop. Alternative crop systems like maize, rice, wheat, ragi, cotton, soybean, mustard, castor, groundnut, blackgram, chilli, poultry and fishery products have been identified for the benefit of farmers and farm workers in tobacco growing areas in India, as per the cropping pattern followed in the particular region. In this context, a study, ‘Operationalising evidence into action for providing viable crop diversification options to tobacco farmers in India: A compelling case for change’, published in International Journal of Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary Studies in 2014, hold importance.

Dwelling on success stories of various countries and a few parts of the country on shifting to alternative crops, the study aims to raise awareness about the strategic significance of initiating programmes and projects on alternate cropping options to tobacco cultivation. 

Authors, Jagdish Kaur, Arvind Vashishta Rinkoo, both from the Health Ministry, and Sumitra Arora, Principal Scientist, NCIPM (Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), call for a need to engage the ICAR and various agricultural universities in the country in provisioning technical support for effective transfer of technologies to the farming community.

A sustained push in this direction would require setting up of a board for promoting alternate crops, along the lines of the Tobacco Board, the Coffee Board or the Tea Board. But what is more important is raising awareness to the tobacco farmers about the adverse impact of tobacco consumption on human health so that they come forward to do their bit for the cause.

(The writer is special correspondent, The Pioneer)

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