The consumption of tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death. According to the WHO, it kills more than eight million people every year across the globe. A large number of deaths due to cardiovascular diseases are caused by tobacco consumption.
Article 13 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) necessitates a ban of all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship (WHO 2008). Also, Section 135 of the Companies Act 2013, requires large companies having net worth of Rs 500 crore or more, or turnover of Rs 1000 crore or more or a net profit of Rs 5 crore to contribute at least two per cent of their average net profit in the previous three years on CSR activity. But the tobacco control community have made repeated efforts to stop the industry’s participation in CSR activities with the plea that the industry is able to earn goodwill among public through these, which does not bode well for stopping the consumption of tobacco.
ITC’s Mission Sunehra Kal has been recognised by the government and received appreciation as government officials regularly take part in the waste management initiatives. Similarly, CSR activities of Godfrey Philips India Ltd have received praise from the Andhra Pradesh Government. Through the CSR activities, tobacco companies are able to boost their corporate image and deflect criticism of their products, as also earn public goodwill through the awards they get for their CSR activities.
All this hinders advances in tobacco control and regulation. Further, the industry employs many tactics to delay the implementation of tobacco control polices, measures and regulations. At the same time, it refuses to take the accountability for their harmful products and tries to absolve itself of responsibility by contributing through CSR initiatives. The tobacco companies are more focused on improving their brand image than actually arresting the tobacco use.
The tobacco industry strives to undermine or misrepresent the science and take the blame of health issues away from the use of tobacco. Some of their efforts include minimising the extent of the health impact of smoking, representing certain forms of tobacco products as safer alternatives and denying the dangers of secondhand smoke. Tobacco companies argue that it is the livelihood of marginalised farmers and workers that suffers the most due to the regulation of the industry.
However, the communities that work with the industry are victims of tobacco themselves as they are constantly working with carcinogenic products. Nicotine is easily absorbed into their bodies which causes numerous health anomalies and premature death. Furthermore, they are unable to bear the healthcare costs incurred for the treatment because they earn minimum wage. The poor workers have to bear the cost of healthcare while the tobacco companies stand to benefit from it.
Studies have examined how tobacco usage affects the reproductive cycle of women. Rural women who use tobacco are susceptible to premature menopause – Andhra Pradesh tops the list in this. The Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS-2) 2016-2017 reports that although smoking is largely prevalent among males, smokeless tobacco is widely used by both men and women in India.
Apart from the health concerns posed due to the usage of tobacco, the industry and their product cause tremendous harm to the environment. A study by Mary Anne Charity Trust (MACT) and The Union organisation in 33 districts across 17 states found that 2516.89 tonnes plastic waste was generated from cigarettes, bidis and other forms of smokeless tobacco. Additionally, apart from plastic, the subsequent paper, foil waste and filter waste continue to severely impact the environment at national and state levels.
The tobacco companies bid to take part in tree plantation initiatives to restore ecological balance draw attention away from the irreversible environmental damage cause by tobacco production and distribution. As per the MACT study around 46,529 trees were cut down for the packaging of tobacco products. Hence, implementation of stricter policies is essential to ensure that the industry’s compliance with environmental laws.
Protect next generation
The industry targets next-generation smokers, and they need to be protected against advertisements and promotions. By conducting programmes in schools and actively involving themselves in improving infrastructure and provision of items through CSR activities, the tobacco industries are making themselves more noticeable in the minds of students. They remain mum on the child labour in cultivation of tobacco crop as also making of beedis.
It is time the government recognises and resist the interference of the tobacco industry that helps them evade regulation and does actual work to protect its people.
Michelle Lobo was a fellow with YAT Fellowship (July – August, 2022). As part of the fellowship, Michelle worked to study the tobacco industry interference through CSR and other sector engagements with Mary Anne Charity Trust (MACT)