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Globalization: International Tobacco Mafia in India

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Millions of Indian children addicted to tobacco

[23.08.2008 / pk] In the western industrialized nations, the improved education of the population about the harmfulness of tobacco products as well as growing environmental and health awareness have led to the tobacco industry in these markets blowing an ever keener wind in the face. To compensate for this development, tobacco drug producers are increasingly concentrating on third world countries.

The standard of education there is usually lower and the availability of information is often severely limited. People hardly know about the multitude of cancer-causing substances in tobacco smoke, and so they are more susceptible to the supposed lure of tobacco drugs. Consumer rights are often a foreign concept in these countries, and the frequent lack of access to sources of information leaves the population vulnerable to manipulation by marketing strategists.

The tobacco multinationals, who have often been criticized for their dubious methods in Europe and North America, do not shy away from practicing their machinations in poorer countries with weaker legal structures. An example of this, unfortunately only reported in foreign media, is the apparent violations of Indian tobacco control laws by the local Philip Morris office.

The Assam Times reported blatant violations of the law in Goa through advertising by the Indian subsidiary of the Philip Morris Corporation, and cited photos to prove them. The Law to Regulate Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products in India, passed in 2003, came into effect on January 1, 2006. It provides clear and immediate action by the state against tobacco advertising and smoking. The law clearly states that no brand names or advertising messages or images are permitted at points of sale of tobacco products. The Philip Morris billboards in Goa clearly violate this rule.

The Secretary General of the National Organization for Tobacco Eradication - NOTE India, Dr. Shekhar Salkar, criticized this blatant disregard for the law and mockery of public health, and called for an unconditional apology in a letter to the Indian daughter of Philip Morris.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly criticized the undermining of tobacco control laws in many countries. Corporate Accountability International complains that "Philip Morris / Altria, British American Tobacco (BAT) and Japan Tobacco (JT) are using their political leverage to weaken, delay and thwart tobacco control laws around the world. Though the industry claims that she has improved, she continues to use her subtle methods to subvert important laws. "

An article in the India Times shows the damage that the mostly international tobacco multinationals have already caused in India. Dr. Pankaj Chaturvedi, professor at Tata Memorial Hospital in Lucknow, used a powerful comparison to illustrate the importance and extent of the tobacco epidemic in the Indian subcontinent: "The number of deaths from tobacco-related illnesses - one million - is four times that the fatality of the tsunami. If tobacco is not a weapon of mass destruction, what else can we call it? "

To support this claim, an important example for India should be given: over seventy percent of all tuberculosis diseases in men are caused by smoking. The urgency of effective measures to contain the tobacco epidemic in India can also be seen particularly in the youngest victims of the tobacco industry, the children. Because they are more and more frequently falling victim to the (not only from an ethical point of view) highly dubious business practices of the tobacco industry.

In India, more than 55,000 children start smoking every day, and 5 million children under the age of 15 depend on Gutka, the form of chewing tobacco that is widespread on the subcontinent. This trend is intensified in particular by the promotion of so-called smokeless tobacco products, which the producers portray as less harmful (compared to smoking tobacco). Such campaigns are being pushed by the tobacco industry worldwide in order to avoid the overwhelming facts about the harmfulness of smoking.

Gutka is offered as a harmless refreshment, and thus consumed in large quantities by ignorant and unsuspecting children. In some areas, Gutka is chewed by a clear majority of children. A survey by the Indian Dental Association (IDA) found that between 10 and 40 percent of students in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) chew Gutka and Paan Masala, and among college students the figure is as high as 70 percent.

Often the products sold lack any indication that they contain tobacco. The consequences are grave. Surveys in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh found that 16 percent of the children were already precursors to oral cancer. The age of oral cancer victims continues to decline, and is significantly lower than in the rest of the world.

Film and the media are compliant assistants to the tobacco industry in India too. The WHO examined 440 Bollywood films from 1991 to 2002. The frightening result: almost three quarters of all films showed tobacco consumption, mostly in the form of cigarette smoking, and thus contributed to the trivialization of deadly drugs.

While initially only the villains were shown on the screen as smokers, more and more leading actors presented themselves as advertising characters for tobacco drugs. Internationally known superstar Shah Rukh Khan has been caught smoking on screen 109 times. The South Indian legend Rajnikant was just as irresponsible with 103 smoking film appearances.

But even Indian superstars can learn from their fatherly role and give a glimmer of hope: After almost twenty years as a chain smoker, Shah Rukh Khan has declared that he wants to quit smoking for the sake of his children. The actor said in an interview: "They hate it when I smoke. For me, that's a sign."

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