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The smoke alarm?s jammed

The increased use of the law to prohibit smoking in public places is far more injurious to health than tobacco itself, for it infringes on an individual?s freedom of choice.

india Updated: Jun 01, 2006 01:03 IST

Every year, the WHO leads the world on the occasion of the Anti-Tobacco Day on May 31. It has become a kind of a ritual. But more importantly, the campaign against tobacco not only exposes the health risks, but even more seriously, compromises the very essence of political and economic freedom. There is little study of the factors which influence the choice of millions of people to reject the appeal of tobacco. Instead, the philosophy of the anti-tobacco campaign is to stress that people cannot be trusted to make their own decision, so they must either be penalised through taxes, or otherwise restrained from accessing tobacco products. A corollary of this misguided approach is to assault the big tobacco companies, capitalising on the politically correct sentiments of our time, rather than recognising the impact of the range of tobacco products produced by cottage industries across India.

Tobacco is an important economic crop in India, which is the third largest producer of tobacco in the world. Around five lakh farmers, grow tobacco in about 0.24 per cent of total agricultural land in the country. In parts of Karnataka, 75 per cent of tobacco grown is exported for the manufacture of filter cigarettes of international brands. Last year, India exported 166,000 tons of tobacco worth Rs 1,400 crore. India is among the top ten exporters in the world.

The total size of the tobacco economy in India has been estimated at around $ 3.3 billion in 2005. Compare this with the cosmetic and toiletries sector at $ 3.4 billion, and tourism receipts of $ 4.1 billion. For households that consume tobacco, less than 3 per cent of family income is spent on tobacco.

India has one of the lowest per capita consumption of cigarettes in the world. The indigenous bidi and other forms of chewing tobacco constitute 85 per cent of the tobacco market here. But it is most attractive to launch a war on the multinational private companies that are presumed to be guilty. The priority is to ban the advertisement of tobacco, or wipe out traces of cigarettes from films shown on TV. It is the cigarettes companies that pay 85 per cent of the total taxes on tobacco. They are among the biggest contributors to the public exchequer, second only to the petroleum sector.

After collecting 50 per cent in various forms of taxes out of the total tobacco-related income of the big cigarette companies, the government becomes the bigger profiteer. The attempt to price cigarettes out of the market has meant that the population that is inclined has to adopt more hazardous forms of tobacco. And then end up paying more from their pocket on healthcare. A true double whammy for the people from their own government.

The most serious casualties of this war on cigarettes are individual freedom and responsibility. Increasing use of law to prohibit smoking in public places, and restrictions of advertisements are much more injurious to the health of free societies, than tobacco itself.

Take the case of increasing scope of public places where smoking is being prohibited. Of course, no non-smoker should be exposed to second-hand smoke without consent. But one way to do this would be to increasingly privatise the public spaces, rather than attempt to bring even more private property within the public domain. Just as private service providers find various ways to meet the demands of vegetarian and non-vegetarian customers, they would as easily find the right balance of smokers and non-smokers in their own private environment, be it a transport, a theatre or an airline.

As if this assault on private property was not serious enough, the next assault was to move from restricting tobacco advertisement to prohibiting them altogether. The first led to surrogate advertising, the second leads to denial of freedom and responsibility. Advertisements are the most visible symbol of freedom of expression. Rather than relying on the coercive power of the government, advertisements seek to persuade potential customers. Because of the voluntary nature of advertisements, it recognises the freedom of population to reject the product. Typically, two-thirds to three-fourths of the population refuse to fall for the lure of tobacco. And it is this freedom to reject that empowers the citizenry and secures freedom in a society.

How fragile would be our democracy, if people as sovereigns enjoy the right to vote, and freely elect a prime minister or reject a political party, but the same people are not considered responsible enough to decide whether to consume tobacco or not. Should we really barter away our freedom for the sake of the war on tobacco?

The writer is the director of Liberty Institute, New Delhi