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Tobacco industry protests Delhi anti-smoking summit

A man smokes in Jaipur
A man smokes in Jaipur

The tobacco industry has come out in force against an international anti-tobacco summit happening in Delhi in November- but the government will not back down.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) 7th Conference of Parties (COP7) is scheduled for November 7-12. Expected to include delegates from 180 countries, it will review the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC) – the first accord of its kind – which was adopted by the 56th World Health Assembly on May 21, 2003. It came into force on February 27, 2005. The WHO calls it “one of the most widely and rapidly ratified treaties in the history of the United Nations.”

The conference will also discuss a second treaty, the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products.

Almost 1,000 tobacco farmers staged protests outside the Ministry of Health and WHO offices on Wednesday, October 26th. They were “demanding transparency in FCTC decision making” according to the Federation of All Indian Farmer Associations (FAIFA).

FAIFA have implored the Indian government to allow tobacco farmers a voice at the conference or boycott it altogether. They have said “Ad hoc decisions on tobacco control at this conference….will affect the livelihood of millions of tobacco farmers and farm labourers involved in tobacco cultivation in the country.”

The Tobacco Institute of India (TII) – whose members account for 98 percent of the cigarette sales in the country – similarly asked for the inclusion of tobacco farmers and industry stakeholders in India’s official- delegation to the conference. Syed Mahmood Ahmad, director of the TII, was critical of “extreme regulations” which he said were “causing widespread growth of illegal trade in cigarettes” – alluding to regulations which require larger health warnings to be displayed on cigarette packets. These rules came into effect in April 2016.

Recently, India was ranked third on a list of 205 countries with the largest pictorial warnings on tobacco products – leaping 133 places from its 2014 ranking. 

A no-smoking sign in Mumbai.
A no-smoking sign in Mumbai.

More than 100,000 farmers have signed a petition asking for protection from FCTC regulations.

The government has said that it will not give in to “pressure tactics”, however. Reuters quoted a health ministry official who said that the government “may feel embarrassed” if tobacco lobbyists were included in the delegation.

There is no legal requirement that delegations from any country should include representatives of the tobacco industry.

In an op-ed in the Huffington Post, Dr. Vera da Costa e Silva – head of the FCTC Secretariat – did not mince words, stating in no uncertain terms that “the tobacco industry could not be trusted.” She added “we cannot sit at the negotiating table with the people who caused this global disaster because one thing is crystal clear – this industry lies.”

Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, wrote in similarly castigating terms in The Guardian. She stated “the tobacco industry has made it absolutely clear it has no intention of abandoning a business model that depends on enticing millions of people – especially young people – into its deadly products.”

Calling tobacco use “one of the most vexing challenges we face in the global health arena”, Chan added “every death from tobacco is an avoidable tragedy. It is our task to reverse the tide…we need history to show us that the turning point in the tobacco epidemic is now.”

India’s $11 billion tobacco industry is the third largest in the world, with an output exceeding 800,000 metric tonnes. It directly employs 45.7 million people.

Tobacco consumption is believed to kill a million people in India every year, accounting for a tenth of all deaths in India. Last year, DNA reported that there was a 36 percent increase in the incidence of male smokers between 1998 and 2015 – equating to an annual increase of 1.7 million smokers in that period.

Meanwhile, the Times of India reported that India is now home to the second largest number of female smokers in the world, trailing the United States. And whilst cigarette consumption in India is declining, it accounts for just 11 percent of tobacco consumption in India, meaning  “its impact on burden of diseases…remains limited.”

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