Sunita Tomar, who shot to prominence as the face of an anti-tobacco campaign, died after a long battle with mouth cancer in a hospital in Madhya Pradesh on Wednesday, days after expressing her shock at BJP MP Dilip Kumar Gandhi's claim that there were no Indian studies to show tobacco caused cancer and other diseases.
Tomar, 28, died at 4am in a hospital in Gwalior, said a doctor at Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital who was treating her. She was admitted to a Mumbai hospital seven days ago but expressed a desire to return to her home in Bhind region after her condition worsened.
Video of the anti-tobacco campaign
Two days before she died, Tomar wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to express her shock at the statement by Gandhi, chairman of Lok Sabha's Committee of Subordinate Legislations, that there are no Indian studies linking tobacco to cancer.
"Recently Dilip Gandhi, chairman of a parliamentary panel, wrote to the Health Ministry asking for the notification on bigger tobacco pack warnings to be kept in abeyance. I was shocked that people in such high posts can be so irresponsible," she wrote.
"Bigger warnings can probably save some innocent lives like mine. You have started to take people along in your Mann Ki Baat where you recently talked about de-addiction. I hope you will also take up the cause of tobacco," she added.
The Union health ministry postponed a decision to introduce new graphic health warnings that cover 85% of tobacco packages on both sides from April 1 based on the report of the panel chaired by Gandhi, the MP from Ahmednagar in Maharashtra.
Along with Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra is one of the major tobacco-growing states of India.
Pankaj Chaturvedi, the head and neck surgeon at Tata Memorial Hospital who was treating Tomar, confirmed her death to Hindustan Times.
"Sunita Tomar was admitted to Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital seven days ago. She was very weak. We gave her medicines. Her condition was worsening. Three days back, she wrote a letter to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and her concern was over the easy availability of tobacco in the market," Chaturvedi said.
"Later, she requested us to allow her to leave the hospital so that she could go home. Three days back she left the hospital. When her condition deteriorated in the morning today, her husband called me up and asked for medical help.
“I provided him information regarding a local doctor. They contacted the doctor but she couldn't survive. I would not like to disclose her address in Bhind as her family has requested us not to do so…," he added. Tomar was taken to a hospital in Gwalior, where she passed away.
Tomar, the mother of two children, made Chaturvedi promise that he would continue the campaign against tobacco.
As part of the "Lives Bachao Size Badhao" public awareness campaign, Tomar collected 38,740 signatures through an online and offline petition for implementing larger and stronger pictorial warnings on tobacco packages. The petition was submitted to Union health minister JP Nadda last month.
During an appearance at the unveiling of the anti-tobacco campaign featuring her, Tomar had said she began using tobacco at the age of 22. Four years later, she developed a blister that was diagnosed as cancer, she said.
The wife of a driver, Tomar had to have an entire cheek and her jaw removed. She was treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.