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Gutkha provides govt with food for thought

Supreme Court says it’s food,safety authority and ministry debate

Written by Abantika Ghosh | New Delhi |
July 10, 2012 1:55:39 am

An observation by the Supreme Court that gutkha is food has set off a tussle between the Health Ministry and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India over regulating the product. The FSSAI wants gutkha banned but the ministry would rather have the former laying down food safety standards for the product.

Gutkha is believed responsible for 90 per cent of oral cancers in India; the industry is worth an estimated Rs 8,000 crore. In a case earlier this year concerning its packaging,the Supreme Court observed that since pan masala,gutkha or supari are eaten for taste and nourishment,they are all food within the meaning of Section 2(v) of the PFA Act.

As per FSSAI rules,no food item can contain a harmful substance like tobacco,hence it asserts is there is no question of setting down standards for gutkha. Its position is that though gutkha should be banned,the FSSAI’s role is to set standards and it has a limited role in implementation of such a ban. If a ban is to be imposed,it is the responsibility of the Health Ministry under the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce,Production,Supply and Distribution) Act,2003.

After the court order,the health ministry had written to states to implement a ban. It says a ban is realistically not workable because it puts the onus on a state government; unless it is a countrywide position,it can become counterproductive. Citing the example of Madhya Pradesh,one of only three states to have banned gutkha,the ministry points out that sporadic bans will only fuel black-marketing. The ministry instead wants FSSAI to lay down standards as it itself does not have facilities to determine what levels of tobacco that would be “safe”.

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“The SC has laid down that gutkha is food and as per our rules no food item can contain tobacco. By that logic gutkha should be banned and it is the prerogative of state food regulatory authorities to implement the plan,” says K Chandramouli,FSSAI chairman. “That is the legal position; so where is the question of laying down standards for gutkha?”

Tobacco control officials in the ministry,however,say a powerful political lobby backs the industry,which employs many people in rural areas,and a ban cannot be implemented countrywide. Bihar recently announced a year’s ban,Maharashtra is said to be mulling one,and last month Kerala decided to ban gutkha.

“Madhya Pradesh was the first state to ban gutkha and what has happened there essentially is that there is no change in availability. Supply from Uttar Pradesh is being routed there and a Rs 2 sachet now sells for Rs 10. That is not a solution. It is very difficult to bring all states on the same page on a gutkha ban because of the political lobby,” said an official.

“We are trying to get FSSAI to frame standards. For us to do so under COTPA,we would need laboratories to test tobacco content. There is none in the country at the moment.”

Health experts feel a ban is the only solution. “It is responsible for 90 per cent of oral cancers and is believed to play a role in cancers of the stomach,food pipe and urinary bladder. Areca nut,one of its constituents,is responsible for several precancerous conditions like oral sub-mucous fibrosis of which there is an epidemic in the country — 30-40 per cent patients die. Our position clearly is that gutkha should be banned and we have sent the recommendation to the Health Ministry,” says Dr K S Reddy,founding member of the Public Health Foundation of India.

WHO FEELS WHAT

Pan masala,gutkha or supari are eaten for taste and nourishment,hence all are food within the meaning of Section 2(v) of the PFA Act

Supreme Court

As per rules,no food item can contain tobacco. By that logic gutkha should be banned

Food Safety Authority

Very difficult to bring all states on same page on a gutkha ban because of political lobby. FSSAI should frame standards

Health Ministry

Gutkha should be banned,recommendation sent to Health Ministry

Public Health Foundation of India

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