The Current Discussion: India recently passed a national smoking ban. Should the rest of the world follow, or is that stepping over the line?
India did pass a really strong law banning smoking in almost all public and work places, but it is being seen not so much as a great expression of national or political will to end a public health scourge so much as the obsession of one man: Health Minister S. Ramadoss.
He represents a party of just four members of parliament in a house of 543. But because India is today governed by a coalition of nearly 20 parties, even small coalition partners have a great deal of leverage.
Ramadoss has tried to do many other things in the past, without success, like firing the widely respected head of All India Institute of Medical Sciences on a whim. But this time his cabinet colleagues have humoured him with the passing of this law. There isn't any lobby for smokers anywhere and nobody, in any case, believes that the ban will be observed in the long run. In the past, Ramadoss has tilted at other windmills, such as getting smoking banned on Indian cinema, even by the Bollywood bad guys.
But he has been determined to get this ban enforced. Notices and posters have come up in offices and restaurants saying that smoking is not allowed. Any policeman and government official can catch you smoking and fine you, in work places even HR heads have been empowered to do so. If anybody has yet been fined under the new law, we do not know, but it certainly has caused a buzz, and, on the positive side, helped create nation-wide awareness on the perils of smoking.
But sales of cigarettes are not down, and certainly the cigarette industry is not up in arms. I am a non-smoker and work for a newspaper that has maintained a smoking ban in its offices for years, so I sympathise with the idea of discouraging smoking. But nobody is convinced that this law is going to achieve that.
That is also because this smoking ban is very urban and elitist in its target and orientation and leaves a vast majority of Indian smokers unaffected. Most poor Indians, and a very large majority in villages are too poor to buy cigarettes. The preferred smoke in the countryside is the "bidi", a kind of indigenous cigarette made by wrapping crushed tobacco in a leaf and tieing it with a string. Still many others smoke hookahs, elaborate smoking devices where raw tobacco burns on coal. And millions of others use a different route to nicotine altogether by just chewing tobacco. This ban leaves all of that untouched.
It is also partly because "bidi" is a political issue. It is mostly produced by a vast cottage industry employing millions of poor laborers with sizable voting power that politicians can only ignore at their own peril. That is why the government, and even Ramadoss, have been unable to get the statutory health warnings printed on bidi packets. Every effort to do so has caused a furor from the tobacco lobby in Parliament.
Nobody, however, objects to this law. There is no smoking lobby in the cities, nor is the ban being enforced in such a draconian way that smokers would be out in the streets protesting. But if the objective was to save the lungs of millions of Indians, this ban is not going to work because smokers will smoke as long as they can afford to buy cigarettes and find a corner on which to smoke them.
What would work much better is higher taxation, education and awareness. This Indian law is just the fancy of one minister who takes himself too seriously and certainly not something governments around the world should be emulating.
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