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Exposed: Big Tobacco’s firms sinister push to catch kids

Tobacco control.
A no-smoking sign in Mumbai.

Efforts to control tobacco use in India have failed to compel companies to clean up their act, new research suggests.

Activists are calling for efforts to be stepped up to stop tobacco companies from illegally advertising to children. This follows a study conducted last month, which found such practises to be common.

The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) forbids the advertisement of tobacco products and restricts their sale where children are nearby. However, this has not stopped these companies from setting up shop near schools and putting up posters to entice youngsters to smoke.

The survey of 243 schools across twenty Indian cities highlighted poor enforcement of the law. This includes a ban on the sale of tobacco products to minors and a prohibition on selling tobacco within 100 metres of schools, colleges and other educational facilities.

“Shockingly, these efforts are reportedly targeting children as young as eight years old”

Violations of these regulations seem to be rampant. Not only are tobacco companies advertising and selling near schools, they are also selling single cigarettes and giving out free samples to hook young people on smoking. Discounts and loyalty reward schemes are being offered by some vendors to entice young smokers. Shockingly, these efforts are reportedly targeting children as young as eight years old.

“The industry is trying to catch their clients young as they need people who would be regular users later on in life,” said Bhavna Mukhopadhyay, chief executive of the Voluntary Health Association of India, which carried out the research in collaboration with Consumer Voice.

“Early teens are impressionable minds and their brains get addicted to tobacco use very early, so what better way than to make tobacco products accessible closer to school and also advertise to build curiosity.”

“The investigative report revealed tobacco giants Philip Morris International (PMI) and ITC regularly flout tobacco control rules”

By Nyttend - Own work, Public Domain,
The Philip Morris Blended Leaf Complex in Richmond, Virginia, U.S. Philip Morris has been the subject of frequent controversy in India owing to its questionable business practises.

This is not the first time tobacco companies have been in hot water over their illicit business practises in India. Doctors have previously petitioned the Centre to launch an inquiry into the tobacco industry and their lobbying efforts.

These calls came on the heels of a Reuters exposé. The investigative report revealed tobacco giants Philip Morris International (PMI) and ITC regularly flouting tobacco control rules.

A core aim of this illicit campaign was “winning the hearts and minds” of 18-24 year-olds, utilising tactics disconcertingly similar to those being alleged at present. Such strategies included free samples and colourful advertising. Following the revelations, the Union Health Ministry wrote to tobacco companies Philip Morris International (PMI) and ITC, Ltd., threatening “punitive action”. 

India’s efforts to enforce tobacco control in recent years have been challenged and circumvented by tobacco companies. Notably, a Union Health Ministry directive requiring graphic pictorial health warnings to cover 85 percent of the display area on tobacco product packaging has been challenged repeatedly in courts.

The closest to a victory tobacco companies have enjoyed in this regard was a ruling by the Kerala High Court against the Union Health Ministry’s directive. This was swiftly overturned by the Supreme Court, arguing that public health enjoyed primacy over the rights of tobacco firms to do business. A legal challenge to more graphic health warnings was also struck down by the Supreme Court, with a senior lawyer getting a rap for comparing the harmful health effects of tobacco to those of chocolate. The new warnings came into force in September last year.

“The positive news is that India’s tobacco control measures are still in force…even more positively, this is producing results”

More than 232 million Indian adults use tobacco on a daily basis.

The positive news is that India’s tobacco control measures are still in force, reflective of a significant effort by the Centre to curtail a major threat to public threat. Even more positively, this is producing results.

The number of Indians who smoke has declined sharply in the past decade, as per the World Health Organization (WHO). This is a trend being observed among younger people in particular. Between 2010 and 2017, smoking rates fell by 33 percent among 15-24 year-olds and by 54 percent among 15-17 year-olds. The same period saw 8.1 million smokers kick the habit.

Nonetheless, tobacco use remains a palpable threat. India bears among the highest rates of lung disease in the world. This is a crisis not helped by the fact that more than 232 million Indian adults continue to use tobacco daily.

Among young people, tobacco use is still a threat even if numbers are declining. For example, 625,000 children aged ten to fourteen smoke everyday. This highlights the threat posed by campaigns of tobacco companies to undermine the law and sell tobacco to children – and emphasises the need for vigilance by authorities to stamp the menace out.

“The tobacco industry must be held accountable for their aggressive advertising efforts around our children’s schools,” says Mukhopadhyay. “Our schools are not safe so long as the tobacco industry continues to try and lure our children into buying their deadly products.”

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