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Controversy: Going Up In Smoke

Tobacco farmers argue that thousands of farmers and labourers are involved in tobacco cultivation and Tendu leaf plucking and that their livelihoods should not be put to risk

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

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It has been established that smoking is injurious to health and governments, the civil society and the medical fraternity have, in their own ways, helped build public opinion against smoking. In India, this has resulted in the Centre issuing a directive some months ago on mandatory display of 85 per cent graphic health warnings on tobacco products.

There’s another side to the debate, however. Tobacco farmers argue that thousands of farmers and labourers are involved in tobacco cultivation and Tendu leaf plucking and that their livelihoods should not be put to risk. Interestingly, advertisements have emerged on auto rickshaws in the national capital of late, pointing to the plight of tobacco farmers.

The Federation of All India Farmers’ Association (FAIFA) general secretary Murali Babu, argues that for the first time since independence, “tobacco farmers committed suicide last year after the crop turned unprofitable”. Federation of All India Farmers’ Associations (FAIFA) vice-president, Gadde Seshagiri Rao, believes that the beedi industry is the third largest employer after agriculture and construction.

According to the Tobacco Institute of India (TII), tobacco farming is the source of livelihood for some 4.57 crore people in the country. These include farmers, farm labourers and tribals engaged in Tendu leaf plucking.

As a pressure group, TII argues against the 85 per cent graphic health warning on tobacco products. It argues that the top five tobacco producing countries have n average warning size of around 20 per cent.

These groups also claim that with the “onslaught of heavy taxation on the legal tobacco industry, excessive increase in excise duties has led to the growth of smuggling of cigarettes due to high tax arbitrage”.

The grey market for tobacco products has almost doubled since 2010, adding between Rs 5,000 crore to Rs13,130 crore to existing industry losses. Any further increase on the already over-taxed legal tobacco industry will only accelerate the process of diversion of tobacco consumption into the illicit and unorganised tobacco sector.

The TII says that in the western world, 90 per cent of tobacco is consumed in the form of cigarettes. In India the total consumption of tobacco is 562 million kg. Out of this, only 62 million kg is consumed as cigarettes and the remaining 89 per cent is consumed in the form of beedi, proscribed cigarettes and other tobacco products, mostly in the unorganised sector.

The TII believes that all the anti-tobacco measures are focussed on organised trade, and since the unorganised sector is a major component of it, “it serves no real purpose”.

“Over the last few years the tobacco farmers have been victims of tremendous distress and 22 farmers have committed suicide,” TII has said. While the TII would like the voice of thousands of workers and farmers to be factored while drafting anti-tobacco regulations for the governments, especially in India, tobacco’s adverse impact on health has been the primary mover of all regulations, including the 85 per cent pictorial warnings.