Interestingly, the ministry does not appear to be keen on invoking the anti-tobacco law, which forbids advertising of tobacco and tobacco products. It was the ad ‘14 states in India believe cigarettes are healthy’ that appeared in both English and vernacular dailies and was issued by the Central Arecanut and Cocoa Marketing and Processing Co-operation Ltd, Smokeless Tobacco Association and All India Kattha Factories Association that made the anti-tobacco lobby and sections of the Health Ministry sit up and take notice. The ads that appeared in almost all mainstream newspapers compared the tobacco contents of gutkha and cigarettes and also charged state governments with robbing the livelihood of thousands who work in the gutkha industry.
The gutkha industry in India is estimated to be worth Rs 8,000 crore and faces the toughest onslaught ever in the wake of a Supreme Court judgment earlier this year that categorised gutkha as food.
Keshav Desiraju, Special Secretary in the Health Ministry, said, “I have been receiving complaints about these ads, but we are yet to take a call on what to do. They are absurd, but if they are causing concern, then we might consider issuing a clarification.”
The ban on gutkha by state governments was triggered by a decision of the Supreme Court earlier this year that since masala, gutkha or supari are eaten for taste and nourishment, they are all food within the meaning of Section 2(v) of the PFA Act.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India rules say that no food item can contain a harmful substance like tobacco. The two together sealed the fate of gutkha in India and it is now banned in almost half of the states, including Bihar, Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Kerala.
‘One pouch of gutka contains 0.2 g of tobacco, compared to 0.63 g in a cigarette’, reads an ad in that series. Another one says ‘A cigarette has 4,000 chemicals, as opposed to 3,000 in smokeless tobacco’.
Activists say the statistics are meaningless and with little scientific basis, are designed specifically to exert pressure on state governments and nudge people into the gutkha habit.
In a letter to the director of tobacco control in the ministry and to Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni, the Voluntary Health Association of India has argued that “these ads are part of a planned strategy to influence public opinion, undermine and demean the ban on manufacturing, storage, distribution and sale of gutkha in various states”. It notes that the ads violate Section 5 of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003 (COTPA) that prohibits all kinds of direct and indirect advertisement and promotion of any tobacco product. The forum has urged both the ministries to take immediate penal action.