You don’t have to be a movie buff to know Mukesh. His gruesome death at the hands of tobacco-related oral cancer reminds us all of the ill effects of tobacco use before every movie. Yet, in India, we see a population of tobacco users that runs into hundreds of millions and a tobacco industry that stands one of largest in the world. No doubt, “tobacco causes cancer” advisories and campaigns have helped reduce the number of tobacco users . But for effective strategies against tobacco use, we need to first know the real cost of tobacco.
Throughout its life cycle, right from inception and until the end, tobacco adversely affects people, environment and the economy associated with it. For tobacco production thousands of hectares of forests are cleared every year. This causes deforestation, loss of flora and fauna, and water pollution because of heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers. The tobacco industry employs many women and children, who not only receive meagre salaries – as little as Rs. 88 or even lower for 1000 beedis they roll – but also, lead unhealthy lives because of the hazardous nature of their work. The tobacco farmers & laborers suffer from Green Tobacco Sickness, an occupational illness, which occurs when nicotine is absorbed through skin as workers come into contact with leaves while harvesting the crop.
Indian beedi factories don’t follow basic safety norms, which means workers don’t wear gloves to protect their hands or masks to cover their mouth. Majority of the bidi rollers are home based and roll bidis with their families, exposing the entire family to tobacco dust and its deadly consequences. Workers absorb high doses of nicotine due to endless hours spent rolling beedis. The skin on children’s fingertips begins to thin and as they age their capacity to roll cigarettes reduces. All of this, along with the 40 million pounds of toxic waste brings forth the grim reality of tobacco production in India.
Worse still, tobacco production is not even a lucrative source of income for the country. The total benefit from tobacco production is minuscule compared to the cost we incur. In 2011, the amount spent on diseases attributable to tobacco was Rs. 1,04,500 crores, that is 1.12% of that year’s GDP. But everything we earned through excise revenue from 2011-2014, was only 17% of the cost.
The real cost of tobacco, therefore, is India’s development. This is what we must consider if we seriously intend on combatting tobacco use.
Video created by Rohan Seth