It was once the tradition for ever ruling government to remind the masses of the ill effect if smoking and other forms of tobacco consumption. This year, the central programme was special as it marked the start of the 150th Birth Anniversary celebrations of our beloved Bapu. While four years back, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government had launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to mark the occasion, prior to that the Banning of smoking in the public places had been launched.
As a reminder, the Global Conference of the International Federation of Head and Neck Oncologic Societies in collaboration with the Foundation for Head and Neck Oncology (FHNO), held at New Delhi on October 12, 2016 expressed concern that the cases of head and neck cancer, which often used to occur among adults in their 60s, have now started occurring among youngsters in their early 30s. This is all because of their addiction to consuming tobacco during school and as an attempt to curb the issues the FHNO resolved to urge the government to remove tobacco and cigarette vendors from the vicinity of school and college premises.
A total of 700 delegates from 12 countries participated in the conference to discuss the new technologies and medical advancements for dealing with India-specific Head and Neck Cancers. As India continues to witness 2.5 to 3 lakh new cases of head and neck cancer every year, according to leading oncologists, even the implementation of 85 per cent pictorial warnings on packets of tobacco and cigarette will not have any effect on children in later stages after they have picked up the habit of consuming tobacco. Every year India records a total of 11 to 12 lakh new cases of cancer, of which about 3 lakh cases are of head and neck cancer. Eighty per cent of head and neck cancer are caused by tobacco alone.
The conference also suggested that government to move for higher taxation instead of the pictorial warnings to curb tobacco consumption. Countries like France and South Africa have decreased tobacco consumption in one decade; a feat which took the US took four decades to accomplish just by increasing the taxation.
Whereas here in India there is no taxation on beedis and chewable tobacco which is killing people of the country every minute, every second. In countries like Australia and the US, taxation is the method that has been used in bringing down consumption of such products.
According to Suresh Sharma, Head of Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) department at AIIMS, even the size of the population and the types of tobacco products available in the market have increased and more needs to be done. Primarily the biggest problem is the presence of beedi and cigarette sellers in every nook and corner, particularly near Educational Institutions.
According to the WHO, tobacco causes over five million deaths worldwide which is likely to increase to 8.4 million if the situation is not brought under control.
However, be it the Parliament or the respective Legislative Assemblies, these largely depend on increasing revenue through tobacco. Meghalaya, in the last Budget Session has increased the rate of tax on cigarettes, cheroots, cigars, beedis and smoking mixture from the existing rate of 20 percent to 27 percent which aims at increasing the revenue generation after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ban on coal mining in the state. The monthly turnover of cigarettes in Meghalaya is said to be between Rs 25 to Rs 30 crores.
The Assam Government meanwhile has increased the tax on cigarettes to 25 percent and with the depot present in Assam and easy transportation of the goods, the dealers are said to be lifting the good from Assam instead of Shillong, especially those consignments for Garo Hills and Ri Bhoi which has actually decreased the collection of revenue for Meghalaya. Hence the dealers are moving the Excise department and state government to at least meet the proposed increase to 25 percent as per the Assam government in order to plug the leakages of tax to Assam.
It is easy to surmise that if the Cigarette dealers can manage to bring down the tax to 25 percent instead of proposed 27 percent as the tycoons, especially the cigarette and liquor barons, have great influence on government policy as both are the most stable and highest tax payers.
As Indians are debating why a business tycoon should be in the Parliamentary Committee to legislate a law directly concerning their own interest and benefit, Meghalaya, where the tribals are exempted from paying taxes as well as claiming to be a Christian state, has no issues on being dependent on all fronts of development to the revenue collected from cigarettes and liquor sale.
The Meghalaya Government has been obediently executing all Court orders, especially those passed by the Supreme Court. Strangely, the Order on banning Smoking in public places nationwide from October 2, 2008 under the Prohibition of Smoking in Public Places Rules, 2008, vide Notification No.GSR417(E) dated May 30, 2008 issued by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare is yet to be implemented.
The Supreme Court has issued a notice to the centre and state governments on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking a ban on smoking products in the country. The apex court has asked the law enforcement agencies to implement the notice strictly. There is already a ban on selling cigarettes near educational institutions and to those under the age of 18 years.
Vendors and shops selling cigarettes and other forms of tobacco within the proximity of educational institutions openly without any hindrances from any quarter speaks volumes about the sincerity of the authorities concerned in implementing the Bill of October 2, 2008 which banned smoking in public places all over India. The Meghalaya government failed to implement the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act-2003 (COTPA), which prohibits sale of tobacco products within a radius of 100 yards of any educational institution.
In Meghalaya, the government authority and the society must stop making the Law of banning smoking in public places a mockery. If the authority feels there is no manpower to keep a check on this nuisance, authorize Whistle Blowers to take up the task; only confining the issue to closed – door meetings is not going to put an end to smoking in public.
It is time the Meghalaya High Court takes action against the enforcing agency for failing to curb the sale of tobacco and the violation of the Act. It is time the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) led by National People’s Party (NPP) headed by Conrad Kongkal Sangma executes the ban public smoking across the state.