Thank you, smokers, for cutting the fiscal deficit

  • Karan Thapar, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 13, 2014 23:44 IST

I’m no longer a smoker. It’s nearly 17 years since I stopped although, to be honest, I still hope to take it up again one day. But that’s another story. Today my concern is about how our government treats those who wish to smoke. After all, my long-term intention is to join this group of victims. So let me this morning take up their often ignored cause.

But first, no longer do I question whether governments should discourage smoking. It’s too late to rebel against the nanny state. If you accept seat belts and helmets you can hardly complain about warnings on cigarette packets. They’re a fact of life we have to accept.

Indeed, I’d go further. Beyond doing its moral duty, there are also sound economic reasons why governments should discourage smoking. In India, 900,000 people die each year from tobacco-related diseases and the figure could jump to 1.5 million by 2020 (International Tobacco Control Project estimates). Second, the total economic cost of all diseases attributable to tobacco use in 2011 was Rs 1.04 lakh crore (Public Health Foundation of India). These are disturbing facts. They can’t be ignored.

So I accept the duty to discourage. My concern is about how this discouragement is done. And how far it should go.

The health ministry has accepted a proposal to ban the sale of loose cigarettes. Given that these are preponderantly bought by the poor, who can’t afford a full packet at a time, this targets a particular type of smoker rather than all smokers. Ipso facto that makes it discriminatory. Equally importantly, it breaches the well-established principle that laws should be universal in application and targeting. This one would not be.

Soli Sorabjee says this is “penalising the poor”. He adds it’s “iniquitous”. If a former attorney general has such concerns surely this proposal should be reconsidered?

There are also sound practical reasons for thinking again. India has 7-8 million outlets where cigarettes are sold. Each of them would have to be regulated on a very frequent basis if the ban on loose cigarettes is to be enforced. But is that possible? And would it not encourage corruption?

The health ministry has also decided to raise the legal age of smoking from 18 to 25. But given that you can vote at 18 and, second, given that in six states you can drink at 18 and in 12 at 21, why should one have to wait till 25 to smoke?

Frankly, the proposal to increase the age of smoking is truly perplexing. If an 18-year-old is adult enough to decide who should rule the country how come he’s not old enough to decide whether he should smoke? This is not just nanny-style protection, it’s infantilising adults.

One other thing: governments don’t hesitate to increase the tax on cigarettes. They wouldn’t dare do that to bidis. Yet eight times more people smoke bidis! But as Arun Jaitley unhesitatingly admits, if bidis were made expensive the backlash would overwhelm the government.

Finally, if governments are so concerned about the impact on our health why not ban smoking altogether? The answer is simple. They would lose Rs 30,000 crore a year in taxes. So they kick up the price instead, knowing that few, if any, smokers will give up. Consequently government revenues keep increasing.

Keep that last paragraph in mind the next time you meet a smoker and thank him for his contribution rather than berate him for his habit!

The views expressed by the author are personal

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