My first reaction was that he is plain stupid, and I suspect that many thought so too, but now it has become utterly clear that he was protecting his business interests. And that’s pretty smart!! When Mr S.C Gupta said that the government should go slow on implementing reforms, and segregate bidis from cigarettes because the former are not as deadly, he was not only looking out for the poor bidi makers but also the rich bidi factory owners. That he happens to belong to the latter category is a mere coincidence!
And his was not a lone hypothesis. BJP’s MP from Gujarat, Mr Dilip Gandhi reiterated that there is no evidence linking tobacco to cancer and in fact, it aids digestion. Such statements gave the world enough to laugh about in the run up to All Fools Day and could have been dismissed as one of those mindless outbursts that politicians excel at. But it is worrying that Mr Gandhi is the head of the Parliamentary panel examining the legislation on Cigarettes and Tobacco products. Not surprisingly, the committee is resisting the government’s proposal to increase the size of the pictorial warnings on tobacco products from 40 to 85 percent. The new rules which were to come into effect on 1st April have been delayed. A cruel joke played by fools on unsuspecting citizens!
But Mr Gandhi was not alone in his endeavour. He was ably supported by others from his party like Mr Shyama Charan Gupta who took a strong Pro – bidi stance , incidentally his being a prolific bidi baron, was not considered a conflict of interest while including him in the aforementioned panel. Support also came from unlikely quarters like the Congress whose Mr S.P Gowda asked for more evidence before any steps can be taken. Nothing seems to unite policy makers like ulterior motives. The general consensus across all parties was that more research on Indians needs to be done before the proposed warnings are implemented. Sadly, many such studies have already been conducted in India, some by government agencies. I don’t know what is more alarming, that our legislators don’t know of these studies or think that we don’t know about them. In any case, more Indians need to die for the cause!
And now the second part of my story which is diametrically opposite to the first one. It is about the state’s insistence on carrying statutory warnings in creative mediums like cinema and art. We have been through various grades of it. In 2005, then Union Health Minister Dr Ramadoss imposed bans on smoking scenes and started Tobacco bowdlerisation, which is removing images of tobacco consumption from films by airbrushing. Luckily, good sense prevailed and the Supreme court reversed this decision in 2009 on the grounds of freedom of expression. The mandatory Anti-Tobacco advertisements before the film and during its interval are acceptable but the disclaimer scroll which appears every time someone lights up on screen is irritating and distracting. So much so that Woody Allen refused to screen his film in India because he found the scroll unacceptable.
My questions follow a logical sequence….
Does our government consider tobacco consumption harmful or not ?
If so, do the citizens need to be warned about it ?
If so, isn’t a message on the tobacco dispenser ( cigarette/ bidi/ gutka etal) the best way to reach the target group?
Between pandering to their own vested interests and giving in to the increasing pressure from health activists, policy makers seem to be in a bind. After all, to warn or not to warn, is a million dollar question !