By Elizabeth Mani for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Raju P, who studies in class 12, and his friend Manjunath S (20), were having tea from a local vendor one evening when a young man approached them. “He asked us if we had mobile phones and active connections. When we told him that we did, he told us that he belonged to a cigarette promotion company and that we could get free cigarettes if we just shared our phone number with him,” Raju says.
The students readily shared their phone numbers. As soon as they did, the man entered their details into a tablet, and handed them a pack of cigarettes, the students said. The man roped in by a tobacco company through a promotional company, however, did not inquire about their ages, Manjunath said.
George KR* (20) also reported experiencing something similar outside his college. “I was standing there waiting for a friend, when a boy who seemed to be of my age approached me and started talking to me. He asked me whether I smoked, and when I said yes, he asked me if I would like a packet of cigarettes for free! I was naturally surprised and interested,” he said. George went on to add that the person asked him for his phone number and name, and after noting it down, gave him a pack of 20 cigarettes in return before leaving.
From chai-shops to swanky pubs, outside schools, colleges and inside glitzy night clubs, the sight of a strange person approaching young people offering them free cigarettes is now a common sight, with tobacco companies reportedly hiring event management companies to do so – all in a bid to get children and adolescents to get hooked on to smoking from a young age.
As per the Indian law, giving away cigarettes stands in violation of India’s Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act and its accompanying rules. Anyone found handing over free cigarettes, whatever the circumstances, stands in contravention of law. Section 5 of the country’s tobacco control act states that: “No person, shall, under a contract or otherwise promote or agree to promote the use or consumption of cigarettes or any other tobacco product.” The law carries a fine of up to ₹1,000 and a sentence of up to two years in prison, for a first conviction.
Yet, as the Reuters’ report revealed – and the YKA-101 Reporters’ investigation found – the tobacco control regulations are being flouted quite openly, putting millions of young Indians at the risk of developing addiction and deadly diseases.
A mock survey conducted in Bangalore by an entertainment company Passion Unleashed (as part of an agreement with a leading tobacco company) is a case in point. In exchange for providing the surveyor basic information about their brand preference, name and age, the participant gets a free pack of cigarettes.
Detailing just how the arrangement works, Shashikumar* (20), who works for a promotion company in Bengaluru, told YKA, “We take up promotions for different companies and our job includes surveying people smoking in smoking areas. This can be a paan shop, shopping malls, and pubs. There are 50 people in the office working on the same project, and we have a target of completing 40 surveys a day. That means we have to find 40 smokers and take a survey of them and give them a pack of cigarettes. We are given four different flavours of menthol cigarettes. They can choose any,” he said.
Passion Unleashed held 21 such events from July 2016 to July 2017 across the country – and in almost all of these events, cigarettes were given away for free. Age proofs were not sought. Mallik Hussain, manager of the pub “Loft 38” in Bangalore, where one such event happened, admitted that the company did distribute free cigarettes in his pub and even informed them in advance that it would undertake this activity. “Passion Unleashed held an event on Saturday at which cigarette packs were distributed for free to our customers. They informed us beforehand of the cigarette distribution,” Hussain told YKA.
Distribution of this kind, is in fact, pretty common. “Distribution of cigarettes in pubs is not new. Pubs are, in fact, the only easy way to reach out to customers. The pub crowd wouldn’t mind trying out a new brand which is free of cost,” said a pub-owner who requested anonymity.
Young And Vulnerable
‘Catch ’em young’ seems to be the unsaid slogan of tobacco companies and their proxies.
According to government data, India has about 100 million smokers. Of those, about two-thirds smoke traditional hand-rolled cigarettes. The use of tobacco kills more than 900,000 people a year in India, and the World Health Organization estimates that tobacco-related diseases cost the country about $16 billion annually. With cigarette sales declining in many countries, India’s huge youth demographic (based on the number of people below 25), definitely presents a lucrative opportunity for the growth in the business of tobacco companies.
It also means that it is becoming easier for youngsters to get cigarettes – something that makes them more vulnerable to trying out their first smoke.
Dr Anuradha HS, a pediatrician and adolescent specialist, says, “When young, all they want is to experiment with new things. But once they get addicted it becomes hard to quit. Tobacco companies target teenagers because that’s the most vulnerable age.”
A case in point is 14-year-old Arnav*, a student in Bangalore, who has been smoking for the last two years now. “Most of my friends who stay near my house were smoking. They would smoke, and one day, they offered me one and taught me how to smoke. I liked it, so I continued with it,” says the ninth grader who smokes up to three cigarettes a day. He adds that the local paan shop-owner lets him know about new brands that are launched, sometimes even offering discounts to him.
A survey conducted in 2015 by the Department of Public Health Dentistry in Bengaluru found that 64.3% of schoolchildren in the 13-15 age group bought cigarettes on their own, and 35.7% borrowed them. This despite a ban on the sale of tobacco products to minors.
The harmful effects of smoking are well known. According to The World Health Organization, smoking not only affects a young person’s respiratory system, but also increases their risk of getting addicted to smoking.
Compared to non-smokers, teens who smoke are three times more likely to use alcohol, eight times more likely to use marijuana, and 22 times more likely to use cocaine. Smoking is associated with a host of other risky behaviors, such as fighting and engaging in unprotected sex.
Smoking at an early age increases the risk of lung cancer – a fact well-documented in various studies.
Schools and colleges say that they do try to sensitise students about the ill-effects of smoking – but clearly, in the face of such massive campaigns by the companies, the effort seems to be failing. “We do sensitise our students about the ill effects of smoking through various seminars and programmes. For tobacco companies, students are the main target as they are young and can easily get addicted. Giving free cigarettes to student is a crime. It is the duty of the government to take action against tobacco companies,” Akshay D Mandik, Head of the Department of Social Work, St Joseph’s College, said.
While the government has ensured that cigarette companies do not get any publicity and that cigarette packs carry huge pictorial warnings to dissuade smokers, these companies have also found ways to bypass these restrictions and bait new customers, putting lakhs of young people at risk. In a country whose development goals are suffering because of enhanced tobacco consumption, clearly, there’s a need to put more stringent policies into place.
*Names have been changed.
The author is a Bangalore-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.