A historic move to save lives and protect public health

29 June 2017 01:54 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The second Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS), conducted in India confirms that India’s package of public health laws are working pretty effectively to reduce tobacco use and save lives, states Matthew L. Meyers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Washington DC.   

Thus, a dramatic decline in tobacco use has been highlighted in India. Since 2010, India has reduced tobacco usage among adults by 17 percent. As a result, there are currently over 8 million less tobacco users than there were just seven years ago, despite the growth in the Indian population, according to new data released last week by the Indian government. The percentage of adults using tobacco in India fell from 34.6 percent in 2009-10 to 28.6 percent in 2016-17.  

There has been a major decline among young people as well. The prevalence of tobacco use among Indians aged 15 to 24 fell by 33 percent, from 18.4 percent to 12.4 percent. Among youth aged 15 to 17, tobacco use fell by 54 percent.  

The Indian government has taken many effective measures in regard to important policy decisions favourable to reduce tobacco consumption in the country. The most recent was the decision taken during this month to tax cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and cheap, hand-rolled cigarettes called “bidis” at the highest rate of 28 percent under a new Goods and Services Tax (GST) structure.  

The percentage of adults using tobacco in India fell from 34.6 % in 2009-10 to 28.6 % in 2016-17

India’s new tobacco tax rate is a critical step forward in a country with 275 million tobacco users – the second highest in the world after China. It will encourage current tobacco users to quit, prevent potential tobacco users – especially young people – from starting and help reduce the one million deaths tobacco use causes in India each year.   

This decision is especially significant for its treatment of bidis. Known as the “poor man’s pleasure,” bidis consist of shredded tobacco, hand-rolled in a tendu leaf. Bidis had been previously omitted from tax increases on tobacco products due to a powerful and well-connected bidi industry. Extremely popular, bidis are used by two-thirds of all adult smokers in India and far outsell regular cigarettes. Like other tobacco products, bidis exact a deadly toll on health, causing various types of cancers and contributing to chronic bronchitis, tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases.  

Smokeless tobacco will also be taxed at the highest rate under the GST. Smokeless tobacco use kills more than 200,000 people in India each year, making India the oral cancer capital of the world.  

According to Article 6 of the WHO-Framework Convention on Tobacco (FCTC), increasing tobacco taxes is the most effective and direct way to reduce tobacco use. By raising the price of tobacco products, higher taxes encourage users to quit and discourage potential users. Studies have shown that a price increase of 10 percent worldwide would reduce the number of smokers by 42 million and save 10 million lives.  

The GST negotiations in India featured intensive lobbying by every sector of the tobacco industry, including major cigarette companies, bidi “barons” and smokeless tobacco manufacturers. By subjecting tobacco to the highest GST rate, the Indian government has shown that public health is more important than tobacco company profits. This decision should serve as an example for governments around the globe, including its neighbouring country, Sri Lanka.   

Meanwhile, the Chairman of HealthCare Global - Cancer Hospital and President of APHI - Karnataka chapter Dr. Ajai Kumar said, “Categorizing all tobacco products at the highest GST rate, including bidis, is one of the boldest and most impactful public health decisions the Indian Government has taken to protect the health of its citizens from the growing menace of tobacco addiction. Taxing bidis at 28 percent will prevent death and disease, not only among millions of bidi users but also among bidi workers who are mostly women and children.”  

The prevalence of tobacco use among Indians aged 15 to 24 fell by 33 %, from 18.4 % to 12.4 %. Among youth aged 15 to 17, tobacco use fell by 54 %

The Indian government will now need to stand strong against the tobacco industry appeals and lobbying that will start immediately to water down the decision by attempting to exempt certain tobacco products. Stronger and more effective tobacco control policies like higher taxes are desperately needed not only in India but in other Asian countries like Sri Lanka, if they are to reverse the tobacco problem.   

Without urgent action, tobacco use will kill one billion people worldwide this century.  

While we Sri Lankans congratulate the Indian government on its bold decision to protect health and save lives for generations to come, we urge the Sri Lankan government to expedite implementing important tobacco control policies, including Article 16 of the FCTC, to ban sale of single cigarettes which the Sri Lankan government has been promising for years and take prompt measures to increase the tobacco tax by 90 percent, as the President of Sri Lanka promised on May 31, 2016.   

Sri Lanka is party to the important public health treaty of the World Health Organization, FCTC and we look forward to the government implementing the Articles of the FCTC according to its guidelines.  

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