The Ministry of Health is willing to share with the government and all concerned groups the findings of scientific research conducted by reputed institutions which unambiguously prove that viable alternatives to tobacco cultivation exist. Dr Harsh Vardhan, Union Health Minister, said today that it is a myth that farmers in tobacco growing regions would be impoverished if the government succeeds in getting people off the smoking habit. “Rather, we have evidence that they would earn better incomes and free themselves from the clutches of money lenders,” he said. Thanking the Finance Minister for proposing to raise the excise duty on tobacco products in his Budget speech yesterday, Dr Harsh Vardhan was optimistic that the largest ever hike – from 11 to 72 percent for cigarettes, from 12 to 16 percent for pan masala, from 50 to 55 percent on gutka and from 60 to 70 percent on chewing tobacco – would lead to more than 3 million Indians, most of them young, to quit the dangerous habit. “The additional earning to the exchequer is significant but the economic cost of smoking is far greater. We can only quantify the state’s expenditure on cancers and TB which runs into billions of dollars annually, but what about the young lives snuffed out prematurely? That too is a blow to the economy as we are losing a valuable resource to tobacco,” the Health Minister said.
“There are people who argue that India earns more than $ 500 million per year through tobacco exports. To them I say, look at the net economic cost. WHO has estimated that in India it amounts to $ 1.7 billion. This cannot be tolerated any longer,” Dr Harsh Vardhan said. WHO has estimated that the direct medical cost of treating tobacco related diseases in India amount to $ 907 million for smoked tobacco and $ 285 million for smokeless tobacco. The indirect morbidity costs of tobacco use, which includes the cost of caregivers and value of work loss due to illness, amounts to more than $ 500 million. The Health Minister debunked the notion that a decline in smoking would impoverish tobacco growers and cause losses in revenue to the governments of states where tobacco production or economies based on tobacco are present. There may be some transitional problems, but with political will these could easily be overcome, he stated. “We have carried out pilot projects on alternative cropping systems to tobacco which we are willing to share with these states. It will be proved that farmers will get better incomes from cultivating sugarcane, a variety of vegetables, pepper, fruits, mustard, etc. on the lands presently taken up by tobacco,” Dr Harsh Vardhan said. Under the WHO-Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), India is obligated to reduce the supply of tobacco. In January 2009, the Health Ministry sanctioned Rs 2.17 crore to the Central Tobacco Research Institute (CTRI), Rajahmundhry, to carry out a pilot project on alternative cropping systems to tobacco. The project was carried out at Nandyal (Seemandhra), Anand and Dharmaj (Gujarat), Nipani (Karnataka), Vedasandur (Tamil Nadu) and Dinhata (West Bengal). The initiative was taken after consultation with Indian Council of Agricultural Research and CTRI.
Dr Harsh Vardhan said a pincer-like, multi-disciplinary drive against tobacco is being considered by his Ministry because the overarching objective of saving thousands of lives may not be entirely achieved by simply taxing the hapless, addicted consumers. Besides, it is also true that giving up the smoking habit is difficult for most people and they are not deterred by high prices.
The Minister also accused tobacco companies of unscrupulous practices to woo farmers. “They are giving lucrative terms to farmers in some regions, even full advances against estimated crop production, to ensure they do not look to alternatives. I will take up this issue at the Central Council of Health for persuading state health ministers to counter this practice,” he said. The government also needs to get its act together, the Health Minister noted. Dr Harsh Vardhan pointed out that the Ministry of Commerce’s Tobacco Board devises and implements extension and development schemes to improve the productivity and quality of Indian tobacco for export markets. It also gives financial assistance to growers of Flue Cured Virginia Tobacco.