The passing of Sunita Tomar, a living warning about the perils of tobacco, could mark a turning point in the public health battle that India is deeply invested in, a decade after it signed the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). In this struggle, signals and signage are more compelling persuaders than cold reason, and Tomar’s unnecessary death silently denounces the position taken by BJP MP Dilip Gandhi, chairman of the Lok Sabha Committee on Subordinate Legislation, whose pettifogging objection to enlarging visual warnings on cigarette products has put the process on hold. But the very presence of Shyama Charan Gupta on that committee signals what is wrong with tobacco control in India: conflict of interest. Gupta owns a beedi company which accounts for at least 1 per cent of national production, and he should have recused himself.
India was among the early adopters of the FCTC, the world’s first public health treaty, but Gupta’s presence on a parliamentary committee which has sent its opinions to the health ministry violates Article 5(3) of the convention, which requires signatory governments to “protect [public health] policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry”. The measure was intended to insulate legislation from motivated advocacy and “research” funded by the industry, but in India, it has met its match — the legislator is the industry. He praises the “herbal” properties of beedis and dismisses globally accepted scientific evidence of the health implications of tobacco while offering anecdotal evidence of its restorative powers. He also believes that tobacco which is ingested is harmful, while inhaling its smoke is fine. And he speaks darkly about the anti-tobacco movement being an American plot to derail Narendra Modi’s Make in India campaign.
Anti-tobacco policy pits the government against itself, in a way. Politicians and industry ring alarm bells about lost jobs and revenues while saying relatively little about social and financial savings in public health. Skilling tobacco growers and workers in alternative pursuits, an FCTC commitment, should end this line of argument. But while the FCTC is a supranational document, within the House, the rules of procedure and conduct of business under which parliamentary committees are formed allow for the removal of members with a “personal, pecuniary or direct interest” in the proceedings. Gupta fulfils all three criteria and should be removed from the committee under Rule 255, and the process of increasing the size of pictorial warnings on tobacco products restored.