This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by IndiaSpend. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

When Endangering Health Is Better Than Taxing Beedi: India’s $16 Bn Tobacco Industry

More from IndiaSpend

By Charu Bahri, Indiaspend.com:

In January this year, the government asked for public opinion on tougher new laws to curb smoking: To raise the minimum smoking age to 21 from 18, and to ban the sale of single cigarettes, which account for 70% of nationwide cigarette sales.

People responded enthusiastically; 45,000 emails and 100,000 letters poured in to the health ministry, as Reuters reported earlier this month. What they said, however, is not known because the government hasn’t yet read the messages, according to a health ministry representative quoted in the story.

Like those messages, the World Health Organisation’s Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic 2015 is largely ignored in India. Its single-line message: Raising tobacco taxes can help curb smoking.

Curbing smoking is very important to India for two reasons:

  • About one million Indians die from smoking-related causes every year, which are among the top three ways to die
  • Smoking also saps Indians of money; more money, it emerges, than it earns for the government.

Bidi-smoking-India

Indians aged 35 to 69 spent Rs 104,500 crore ($15.9 billion) in 2011 on diseases associated with tobacco–including cancer, respiratory diseases, tuberculosis and cardiovascular diseases. This figure is almost six times as much as central-excise tax collections from all tobacco products that year, according to the Government of India, WHO and the Public Health Foundation of India.

To put the health cost of tobacco in further perspective, it exceeded the combined annual state and central government expenditure on health care by 12% in 2011.

Taxes on cigarettes rise–not enough–but they do. Bidis are the problem

A 10% price increase on tobacco products could cut consumption between 2% and 8% in developing nations, according to the WHO. Tax hikes increase prices, which in turn lower demand and protect people from the ill effects of tobacco.

“Raising taxes is a win-win situation,” said Arun Thapa, Acting WHO Representative to India. It’s good for human health and for the country’s fiscal health.”

Over the last 19 years, taxes on cigarettes in India have risen 1606%. As the next part of this series will tell you, that isn’t quite enough, and the six-tier tax structure is so complex–based on stick lengths and filters–that companies manipulate it with relative ease to keep demand intact.

The biggest problem in curbing tobacco use lies with the influence wielded by those who make the humbler–but more damaging–cousin of cigarettes, the bidi.

Taxes on a pack of bidis are 7% of the retail price, less than a tenth of the WHO’s suggested level of 75%. A 20-stick pack of best-selling cigarettes is taxed around 60% of retail price.

Bidi smokers make up 61% of the nation’s 120 million smokers, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) 2010. This is a conservative estimate. Some studies peg the numbers of bidi smokers higher, at 73%, even 85%.

Bidi smokers face a higher risk of developing potentially-fatal chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), among other illnesses, because tobacco is packed more loosely in bidis, requiring smokers to inhale more strongly.

But the bidi industry has consistently squeezed concessions from the government.

Million of jobs and livelihoods at stake, so taxes must stay low, argue bidi barons

Here are some concessions the government gives the bidi industry:

  • Handmade bidi units (98% of bidis are handmade ) producing less than two million sticks in a year are exempt from excise duty.
  • Bigger bidi makers pay a duty of 1.6 paise per handmade stick and 2.8 paise per machine-made bidi. The duty on cigarettes varies between Rs 1.28 and Rs 3.37 per stick.

Some eight million people work as bidi rollers nationwide, said a representative of the All India Bidi Industry Federation.

“Imposing taxes on bidis and introducing pictorial warnings on bidi packs would lower demand,” said Sudhir Sable, secretary, All India Bidi Industry Federation. “Any fall in production would jeopardise the jobs of bidi rollers. It would also adversely impact tobacco farmers, as well as the thousands of corner shops selling the product.”

Increasing taxes on bidi would invariably increase the illicit trade in bidis, leading to the proliferation of fake bidis, Sable argued. It would also deprive states and the central government of tax revenue.

These arguments do not wash, say experts.

No socio-economic case for low bidi taxes, contend experts

In 2013, the bidi industry contributed less than 3% to the government’s central excise collection from tobacco products, not surprising, given the low excise duty it pays.

A Public Health Foundation of India study says there is indeed scope for taxes on bidis to be increased.

“Doubling bidi excise would help cut consumption by 40% and increase tax revenue by 22%,” said Monika Arora, director, Health Promotion and Tobacco Control Initiatives, Public Health Foundation of India.

Essentially, the argument goes, higher tax rates would offset any loss of excise from fall in consumption. In the bargain, spending on “useful” goods and services will grow.

“Money not spent on bidis or cigarettes will not disappear from the economy,” said Prabhat Jha, founding director of the Centre for Global Health Research, University of Toronto. “It will be spent on other products which generate employment.”

Additional revenue could help the government meet the cost of transitioning bidi workers to other means of employment. The government has previously considered a cess on cigarettes to encourage farmers to switch from tobacco to other crops.

So, why not tax all segments of the tobacco-products industry, experts suggest, to fund a gradual transition? Bidi workers, among some of India’s most disadvantaged people, can only benefit.

Bidi workers: Among India’s worst paid workers and plagued by ill health

“The effect (of high taxes and low consumption) on bidi employment will take years,” said the University of Toronto’s Jha. “It does not mean current bidi rollers will lose their jobs. It means fewer people will take low paying bidi rolling jobs in the future.”

West Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are among India’s top bidi-producing states. In West Bengal’s district Murshidabad, bidi rolling is pretty much the only livelihood.

Bidi workers in Murshidabad earn Rs. 100/- per 1,000 bidis. Those in Uttar Pradesh earn Rs. 90/- per 1,000 bidis. Bidi workers are among the lowest-paid ‘manufacturing’ employees in India, according to this 2014 study. They constitute 1% of all employment in India but collectively earn 0.1% of all wages.

“They earn minimum wages or ‘negotiated’ wages,” said Sable. ‘Negotiated’ means a lower wage than the minimum government-prescribed wage, for which Sable said the consent of the local government authority is always taken.

“Lower wages are negotiated because the cost of the bidi has to be kept low for the consumer and also ensure parity with wages in neighbouring states,” said Sable.

Collusion between local government authorities and the bidi industry–as Sable admits to–keeps bidi workers in penury, while tying their daily wage to punishing targets of about 1,000 bidis a day causes ill health, write Sunanda Sen and Byasdeb Dasgupta in their book “Unfreedom and Waged Work: Labour in India’s Manufacturing Industry.”

Most workers are given tobacco to roll at home. Protective measures such as masks and gloves are unheard of, and soon enough, they suffer the ill effects of exposure to tobacco flakes and dust.

“Ear, throat and lower respiratory tract infections are common among bidi workers,” said Arora. “So are cancer and tuberculosis.”

Bidi workers and rollers exposed to tobacco dust had a six-fold higher incidence of respiratory impairments, such as breathlessness and cough, reported a 2006 study in Murshidabad, West Bengal.

Many women workers suffer gynaecological problems and pregnancy complications. This should be a concern, as 90% of the workforce is female.

Transitioning bidi workers to other manufacturing jobs would be good for them. Raising taxes on bidis would be good for the country as a whole. The only people who might not benefit are the bidi company barons.

(Bahri is a freelance writer and editor based in Mount Abu, Rajasthan.)

This article was originally published on IndiaSpend.com, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.

You must be to comment.

More from IndiaSpend

Similar Posts

By Priyanshi Mehra

By Abhinandan Kaul

By Imran Khan

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below