The health department is pushing for a blanket ban on chewing tobacco in the hill state to strike at the root of gutka manufacturers’ shrewdness in skirting bans.
The state government banned sale and manufacture of gutkha in 2013. But with ban comes circumvention, and it’s the same in the case of gutka, an intoxicating mixture of betel nut, slaked lime, paraffin and katechu along with tobacco. The sellers separated the products and began selling in separate pouches to evade the ban.
But how effective have been the bans and restrictions on tobacco and its products in the state?
Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act (COPTA) prohibits smoking in public places. The rule was enforced in Uttarakhand on October 2, 2008. However, the ban began to be implemented only by December 2013.
According to health department statistics, only 3,111 people were penalised between December 2013 and August 2015 for smoking in public, and collected a fine of Rs 82,380 from the violators.
The term public places means office buildings, hospitals, government buildings, schools, colleges, railway stations, airports, bus stand, hotels, restaurants among other places.
“The response of various departments toward this ban is very poor,” said health minister Surendra Singh Negi.
COTPA also prohibits sale of tobacco products to minors
Between December 2013 and August 2015, only 122 shopkeepers were penalised for selling tobacco products to minors. The number of shopkeepers penalised pales in comparison to the health statistics of the department.
According to Uttarakhand Youth Tobacco Survey of 2013, 50 teenagers pick the habit of tobacco consumption every day in the state. About 12.2 % youngsters of government inter-college consume tobacco. The data clearly reflects the accessibility of tobacco products to minors.
Mahesh Bhandari, the president of Doon Resident Welfare Front and social activist, said, “Charging penalty isn’t a solution to this problem. Strict legal action should be taken against those found selling tobacco and its products to persons below 18 years”.
There is a restriction on the sale of tobacco products within 100 yards of educational institutions. But this rule too is observed more in breach.
Only 13 shopkeepers have been penalized for the offence, collecting a paltry fine of Rs 510.
Chief education officer of Dehradun SP Khali said: “We have taken precautions to check sale of tobacco products near education institutions. If someone is selling it under the table, then we can take action against the shopkeeper, provided we have the information. I think there’s a lot to be done to sensitise the youngsters”.
The state has also faltered in implementing the ban on sale of loose cigarettes.
The Nainital High Court on June 3, 2014 ordered that loose cigarettes do not specify the label or warning as per directed under section 7 (2) of COTPA and therefore, should be banned.
However, loose cigarettes are available across the state without much asking around.
So, why are the various bans on tobacco failing in the Uttarakhand?
According to Aditya Agnihotri, state consultant for tobacco programmes, tobacco bans need coordination among departments.
“Health department alone cannot enforce all bans. The ban on smoking at public places is purely managed by respective heads of the department. Food safety and Standards Authority (FSSA) and local bodies should check ban on sale of tobacco products to minors. Education officers should be involved in checking sale of tobacco products around schools and other educational institutes”.
“Unless, all departments join hands for the cause, we cannot enforce ban on tobacco products.”
Lack of awareness about the bans too is a cause of concern.
“We have been taking several measures to sensitise the public about the ban, but to no avail. From organizing workshops for various departments to conducting discussions at educational institutions, we are making several efforts to spread awareness. But, it will take more time,” said Dr Ajeet Gairola, the director of National Tobacco Programmes.
The government wants a national policy so that cigarettes, whether loose or in packets, could be banned.
“Unless there’s a national policy, we cannot ban cigarettes in the state, even if we want to,” said Surendra Kumar, the media in charge of chief minister Harish Rawat.