BJP MP Shyama Charan Gupta, at the centre of a controversy for defending tobacco products, has rejected foreign studies linking smoking to cancer and sought domestic research on an Indian product such as the beedi.
Gupta, whose Rs 350-crore business group includes Shyam Bidi Works, defended tobacco products despite serving as a member of a parliamentary panel whose recommendations led to the Centre delaying plans to enforce bigger health warnings on cigarette packs.
During an interview, the lawmaker from Allahabad claimed beedis were less injurious than cigarettes and did not cause cancer.
Q. What did you mean by your comments that beedis have “nil” harmful effects on health?
A. Today there are all kinds of tobacco products in the market like cigarettes, hookahs, chewing tobacco and beedis. They have different quantity and qualities of tobacoo in them. For example, a cigarette has blended tobacco and is branded, whereas a beedi has green leaves and is made from green tobacco and it has no branding.
Beedis and cigarettes cannot be compared as they are two different products. They can also not be classed together.
By “nil” I meant it was less injurious to health. If you say it is injurious due to tobacco, then it is less injurious.
Q. What happens to the beedi workers if there is a ban? What should the government do?
A. First, the government should take measures to provide alternative employment to the beedi workers and then start talk of banning beedis. There are Indian workers involved in all levels of beedi production. Starting from the tendu leaf collectors to rollers and finally the retailer, all will be severely affected. We already know that there is a big employment problem in India. How will the government rehabilitate them?
Q. Do you agree with the move for 85% pictorial warnings for beedis? Do you have issues regarding the content of the warnings?
A. Forty percent is ok but I do not agree with the increase to 85%. I ask a question: why do the WHO’s guidelines differ from country to country? In fact the WHO, which is controlled by America, have less than 40% warnings in the US and want 85% for India?
I have no problem with the content but the issue is only with the size of the warning. Implementing 85% pictorial warnings on beedi bundles is a very tough task.
Q. What do you propose to do instead?
A. I propose that beedis and cigarettes should be categorised differently. There ought to be different rules governing both products.
Q. Like the ITC, do you want to diversify your business and quit the beedi business altogether?
A. Not only myself, I say all beedi workers and industrialists will have to quit the business if the 85% warning is implemented. If the rule comes through, then I would have to do something for my bread and butter, isn’t it?
Q. What is the feeling in the beedi industry now? What will happen if the rule comes through?
A. We will all have to quit the business. And let me tell you that already, before April 1, there were many demonstrations and marches all over the country. Only once the rule has been called for a review on April 1, they have stopped. People are already shutting their shops in fear.
We come under the purview of the Labour Act and we all follow it. Now tell me will the government be able to take care of the unemployed workers? Or do we (industrialists and owners) have to take care of the workers once business is finished. This is the real awkward question.
Q. What do you think about the government’s latest efforts to reduce smoking?
A. They (government) are already telling people to stop smoking through advertisements and public campaigns. Why do they have to take this way? Enough is already done to tell the people about harmful effects of smoking. And the numbers of smokers have reduced. Why don’t they just stick to that? Why do they have to disturb this?
In one day, where (will) this whole lot of people go if smoking beedis is banned?
Q. According to studies conducted across the world, smoking causes cancer. What is your view?
A. Beedi doesn’t cause cancer. There are many smokers who don’t get cancer. There are also many people who don’t smoke but get cancer.
Q. What about the studies?
A. These studies are foreign studies and not Indian. For Indian items, there should be research in India. Like beedi is an Indian item. It has Indian tendu leaves, Indian tobacco, we have Indian workers and Indian smokers, so the research should be based in India.
Trades that are limited to India and flourish in the Indian atmosphere should be researched in India. Once we have the results we can compare them to the foreign ones.