30 percent of the adult population in India is reported to smoke regularly or to have been compulsive smokers at some point in their lives. What is shocking, however, is a new report which reveals that 74 percent of the children in Kerala smoke some form of tobacco. The survey, recently undertaken by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), assessed 119 children from the age of 5 to 18 across the state, and came up with this disturbing finding. Commissioned by the ‘Working Group on Substance Abuse and Drug Addiction among Children’ under the ‘National Commission for Protection of Child Rights’ (NCPCR), the study covered 4,024 children across 27 states and two Union Territories. While the Secretary of the State Department of General Education, A. Shahjahan, admits that the sample veers towards the severe end of the spectrum (as first reported by NDTV), the findings are still alarming.
What would disturb a middle-class reader’s usual sense of complacency about drug and tobacco use being common only among homeless children or among those from a lower socio-economic background, is that the survey covers children in middle-class families as well. While it is true that children from poorer families may have greater access to cheap forms of tobacco earlier in childhood, and may take to it more casually, those from middle class and upper middle class families generally have greater access to resources to sustain smoking as a habit and they also have greater access to alcohol and to harder forms of addictive substances such as heroin and cocaine and a variety of drugs. Indeed, it is the latter population in metropolitan cities which generally takes to smoking as a rite of passage and as a symbol of ‘coolness’, often in imitation of movie stars smoking in films. Moreover, tobacco and alcohol generally serve as ‘gateway substances’ with children who regularly consume these substances more likely to gravitate towards use of harder drugs.
The causes of smoking among children, thus, cannot be sourced back to one particular factor but are over-determined. Easy access to tobacco, imitation of models including parents, access to a global culture of film and TV shows withÂ actors smoking regularly and casually, stressful and abusive home environments, and peer pressure, are only some of the varied causes. Complicating efforts to curb tobacco use, are its cultural precedents in India, which records traditions of smoking asÂ early as 2000 BC (mostly cannabis) although tobacco was only introduced to India in 1600 AD. Thus, in a few states, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir, more than 26 percent of the adult population are regular smokers. Further, according to a WHO report in 2009, India is home to 12% of the world’s smokers, while 9 lakh people die of smoking-related illnesses in India every year. Information about incidences of smoking among minors is less readily available, but if the survey is anything to go by, the findings would not be salutary.Â
Given these statistics, one may well reflect about the efficacy of disclaimers during movies screened in cinema halls. Besides the standard short films employing horrifying imagery of desiccated lungs and shrunken and blackened trachea, the standard prelude to a film in which the actors engage in smoking for reasons of authenticity or artistry, is a disclaimer to the same effect. What often makes a mockery of even this token gesture is that each time an actor is shown smoking a cigarette in a film, even if it is five to six times within a five minute sequence, the disclaimer returns at the bottom of the screen, losing effect through repetition. It is the mandate forcing these token disclaimers from films that led to Woody Allen withdrawing his Oscar-winning ‘Blue Jasmine’ from Indian cinemas.
Far more effective in curbing early tobacco consumption would perhaps be organizing presentations by groups of college students in primary and secondary schools across the board on the harmful effects of smoking, as children would be far more likely to take advice from teenagers and young adults after whom they model themselves. Such awareness campaigns carried out by the youth, as through affiliation with the National Service Scheme (NSS) program would also effectively combat peer pressure, one of the primary reasons many children take to smoking.
One measure that can ensure effective curbing of smoking among children is early prevention and spreading of awareness through targeted education. Instituting guidance counsellors/child psychologists at every educational institution is a key step towards gauging periodically, the mental and emotional health of children and preventing them from taking to substance abuse. However, most Indian schools have yet to comply with such a measure. Further, parents should be educated about the ill-effects of smoking, not just to themselves, but to their children. Initiatives such as the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s sponsored short film ‘Child’, which shows the effects of second-hand smoking on children, should help to an extent.
Another key legislation, more evident in the breach than in its observation, is the rule prohibiting sale of tobacco and related products to and by minors within 100 yards of educational institutions, in force (theoretically) since 2004. While police infrastructure to regulate petty crimes is weak in India and bribe-mentality is still rampant, it is vital to implement this legislation to have any hope of making a dent in the sizeable population of smokers in India. Emblematic in this regard, are Chandigarh and Shimla’s ‘Smoke-free City’ campaigns which have shown reasonable signs of success since their inauguration in recent years. However, far wider campaigns are needed if India is to prevent the loss of one in five of its males and one in 20 of its females to smoking-related illnesses (according to a WHO report).