The Indian Analyst

Smoking Out Smoking

The Union Health Ministry issued a directive banning all smoking on screen. Hence, movies and teleserials cannot show people smoking. The directive said that TV channels with older movies with smokers will have to display a warning message to let views know that smoking is "injurious to health." With this directive, India becomes the first country in the world to bank smoking on screen. Films with smoking scenes must run a band under the movie disavowing smoking. Sports events and international personalities sporting clothes promoting cigarettes have to adhere to this format. One way to look at this directive is that this is kind of a "bleeping" mechanism for cigarettes just as there are "bleeping" mechanism for bad language on television.


Indian producers and directors were quick to criticize this plan as impractical, stymieing creativity, and  "bizarre." Ms. Sharmila Tagore, who is the head of the Indian Board of Censors thought that this ban should not be an impediment to developing a character.


Historically, Indian movies frozen in time to the 50s and 60s, routinely glorify characters who smoked. Many actors made smoking or their adroit handling of cigarettes their trademark. Rajikanth, the popular Tamil actor, is known for his cigarettes tricks and usually aped by boys on the street. Amitabh Bachan, the popular Hindi actor, set a trend of bidi-hanging-off-my-mouth in rural north India. Hence, with such popular actors glorifying smoking, demonstrating a sign of being "cool," a sought-after man, who ultimately won the maiden and over his enemies served as unpaid advertisement for cigarette manufacturers. In fact, people paid to watch these heroes and bought cigarettes after seeing them. While smoking is being routinely banned in Western countries, more and more youth in India and other developing countries are seen as the growth segment by Indian and global cigarette manufacturers.


Smokers in India are a menace. Apart from the rare one who take his trash with him, most Indian smokers trash the place around them. They usually smoke with a tea or coffee drunk from a non-biodegradable plastic cup. Then they usually have some areca nut (gutka) or mouth freshener and throw that non-biodegradable plastic bag around too. So, every time they smoke, they leave behind three pieces of garbage, affect others through second hand smoke, and stink up the place. And, unlike other countries, there is no consequence for their actions and the non-smoking majority and the tax paying minority have to pick up the tab for a mess they hate to support.


As noble as this directive seem to be, it throws up more issues that it really solves. Firstly, is this directive legally tenable? How will the Supreme Court (SC) see it if one were to challenge the directive in court arguing that it curtails freedom of speech, expression, and creativity. While the SC did rule to stay the ban and messaging on cigarette packets in 2003, the arguments were focused on right to sell. In this case, it is right to expression. Secondly, is the Government trying to alert population about the ill effects of smoking or just shutting down one avenue of glorifying smoking? Thirdly, is there a political angle to this directive. Rajinikanth is viewed by many as the next MGR phenomenon to enter politics in Tamil Nadu. A disaffected population in the state is at a stage of rejecting both Dravidian parties and an entry of the popular hero would be very inconvenient for the opportunistic coalition of convenience in Tamil Nadu fighting Jayalalithaa's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu. As recent results in the by election showed, that the traditional 33% swing voters of Tamil Nadu voted with Jayalalitha-- they had voted against her last year in the Parliamentary elections. Hence, the time may be rife for a third force, one who may take the swing voters and perhaps some fringe voters from the AIADMK and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Fourthly, while this directive will shutdown one avenue of pro-cigarette messaging, it does not address the countless surrogate advertisements, products, branding, bill boards, and retail outlets that go on promoting cigarettes. Cigarette and alcohol companies are so bold in India that they own retail chains, grant bogus awards, sell non-existent music, market water, and even own airlines by their flagship names. How is the Health Ministry planning to control these other forms of messaging. If this was a part of a larger architecture to control smoking and improve the lives of Indians, then an insight into that plan will win over skeptics. Fifthly, many skeptics think that this is a political stunt only to squeeze the tobacco companies of more political covert and overt funding. Like the gutka ban in Maharashtra last year, the alcohol ban in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Nagaland, many believe that this ban will disappear with the chorous of protests from tobacco, film, television, and advertising industry-- all of them with strong financial and political clout. Many actors are Members of Parliament, one Federal Minister owns a popular television channel, and one liquor baron is Member of the Rajya Sabha.


If the Health Minister is serious about controlling the rate of cigarette smoking or its effects on people, he must take a more comprehensive view of the problem. Firstly, selling of tobacco products to underage population should be banned and enforced. Secondly, allowing underage population into bars, dance clubs, or music clubs must also be banned and enforceable. Thirdly, there should be a ban on use of brand names associated with cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and other harmful products in other consumer goods, services, or places. Fourthly, we need a lot of education at the school, rural, and street level. Signing up the same actors who glorified smoking as Ambassadors to tell people not to smoke would be a great start. Also, instead of banning smoking in cinema use it as a medium to impart the right message. Fifthly, there needs to a high tax on manufacture, sale, import, and distribution of tobacco products. These need to be at a Central level and choke points-- customs, manufacturing units, warehousing, etc. These profiteers must be charged for maximum installed capacity of their plants or warehouses and not their declared rate of manufacture. Sixthly, the sale of tobacco products near schools, colleges, and other educational institutions must be banned and enforced. The Union Minister recently reported that 877 people were arrested for selling tobacco products to minors and for storing them near a school. While this is commendable, the numbers quoted are paltry compared to the wonton violations all over the nation and always with impunity. Seventhly, the tobacco and gutka companies need to be asked to pay a garbage fee which will then be paid to local Governments to clean up their mess.


With the absence of such comprehensive measures, the Union Minister's noble goal of controlling smoking and improving the health of the nation will go nowhere.