Close on the heels of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, the Maharashtra government may soon disassociate itself from any sponsorships, donations or corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives offered by tobacco companies. Once the decision is finalised, the Directorate of Health Services (DHS) would instruct all state department heads to reject such offers or partnerships.
The move is aimed at curtailing direct and indirect promotion of tobacco brands by the state government.
“All heads of departments in Maharashtra state are requested/instructed not to participate in any tobacco industry activities, and not to indulge in direct/indirect/ in kind sponsorship or funding from any corporate or individual engaged in tobacco trade or commerce in order to implement the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA), 2003, in the state of Maharashtra,” the DHS-approved draft of the circular states. The draft is currently awaiting the final nod from the government.
Vijay Satbir Singh, Maharashtra’s Additional Chief Secretary (Health), said, “We have instructions from the CMO to actively work against tobacco. Once this proposal is approved, the law and judiciary department’s opinion will be sought.”
The BJP-led government will thus join other states taking a stand against tobacco giants. According to officials, Mizoram, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh have aggressively implemented this circular while a few other states are now in the process of taking it up.
At least two major Indian manufacturers of cigarettes, the Indian Tobacco Company (ITC) and Godfrey Phillips, engage in CSR activities revolving around education, health, welfare programmes for women and sanitation. ITC’s CSR policy shows it has provided infrastructure support to 1,400 primary government schools, entered into public private partnership with several state governments for watershed projects, and worked with government sanitation schemes.
Godfrey Phillips’ CSR section shows it has equipped primary health centers and contributed to infrastructural improvements in anganwadis and primary schools apart from distributing school bags in Andhra Pradesh. The company’s CSR initiatives also work in HIV/AIDS prevention work.
“The association of the government with tobacco companies is a direct propaganda of the company’s products,” said Dr PC Gupta, director of Healis Sekhsaria Institute of Public Health, adding that several states lag behind in implementation of World Health Organisation (WHO) treaty that outlines a similar policy. “Stopping all sort of grants from tobacco companies is necessary for tobacco control in India,” he added.
The file that instructs departments to curtail its association with tobacco companies is currently under process of obtaining approval from Additional Chief Secretary of Health, Vijay Satbir Singh, following which it will be put up for consideration in the Mantralaya.
India is signatory to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) whose article 5.3 states “in setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.”
“In Punjab, this circular was issued to curb tobacco industry interference in governance,” said Rakesh Gupta, deputy director of non-communicable diseases, Punjab. He added that a particular tobacco firm would hold school competitions. “The brand and logo remains in the minds of students. They assume that this is a good brand when they finally pick up smoking,” Gupta added.
In Maharashtra, a tobacco firm approached the DHS to print posters of COTPA for raising awareness on tobacco and cigarette consumption. “We refused to accept their funds which they said they will use under CSR,” an official from the state health department said.
In an e-mail response, Syed Mahmood Ahmad, director of Tobacco Institute of India, a representative of all tobacco manufacturers in India, said the FCTC is not a binding document. “As per law, companies are mandated to undertake CSR spends. FCTC is often wrongly cited by vested groups to further their anti-tobacco agenda.” The response added that there is no treaty signed which restricts Indian companies engaged in tobacco industry to implement CSR in collaboration with government.