Will cancer-stricken commissioner get justice on 14 January 2010?

Will cancer-stricken commissioner get justice on 14 January 2010?
Kulsum Mustafa

Mumbai: The Commissioner of Customs at Mumbai, Deepak Kumar, and members of anti-tobacco lobby are anxiously looking forward to heralding in the New Year. On 14th January, 2010, will be pronounced a landmark judgment in the case that has already gone down in annals of history. Whatever the verdict the case is India’s first such complaint to be filed by a serving officer.

Deepak Kumar has registered a case at Maharashtra Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission in Mumbai. on December 2. He has demanded compensation of Rs. 1 Crore (INR 10 million or USD 200,000) from ITC Ltd, Kolkatta for severe physical damages, including loss of natural voice, incurred due to tobacco consumption without awareness of the dangers posed by the product.

After nearly 40 years of regularly smoking cigarettes, he had developed throat cancer. Kumar's larynx – the voice box has been removed. So severe was his ailment that his treatment entailed two surgeries and radiation therapy, just to keep the cancer from spreading. The dream of the man who wanted to become an attorney after he retired from the Customs department today lies shattered. His resonant voice is gone Mr. Kumar can barely utter just a few words, and that also with great difficulty and after first covering the hole in his larynx with his palms. From his neck hangs a white gauze bib- an attempt to hide the gaping whole left by the surgery.

“It is not money, it is not personal vendetta, I await this judgment because it is in larger interest of tobacco consumers. The consumer must know he is inhaling and chewing poison,” Mr. Kumar told media persons at a national level media interaction organized in Mumbai by Healis Sekhsaria Institute for public Health.

The judgment Mr. Kumar hopes will make tobacco companies accountable, pressurize government bodies to curb tobacco products in India and make public aware of the ill effects of tobacco and draw attention to the hardships faced by users of tobacco.

“I have seen death, pain and suffering. On the hospital bed I took a vow- if I survive I will devote my entire life to anti-tobacco campaign. I do not want others to suffer what I have…... “ says Mr. Kumar, his voice choked with emotions. Mr. Kumar was operated in the Tata Memorial Hospital in November 2008.

Not able to take on the strain of speaking through prosthetic voice box Mr. Kumar addressed the media through power point presentation. He went on to describe his journey from a 16 year old boy, thrilled and excited at smoking his first cigarette. In the next 40 years the number increased to 40 sticks a day. In those days there was no warning about cigarette smoking being injurious to health. This came to be printed on cigarette packs only in mid eighties. "If I had made an informed choice 40 years ago, it would be a different story. But when I began smoking, which started as just a cigarette or two during my pre-college and early college days, there were no warnings. Nothing. How could I -- or the millions of others in India who started then -- have known that cigarette smoking is more addictive than heroin? It was intentionally made glamorous, through marketing. I used to smoke Wills Navy Cut, an ITC brand. I'll never forget that advertisement campaign they ran: a beautiful young girl, a handsome young man, and between them a pack of Wills Navy Cut. The slogan? Made for each other," said Mr. Kumar in a remorseful voice.

"More than anything, I regret smoking that first cigarette. Ultimately, it ruined my life. How many more lives must be ruined by tobacco in this country?" he asks, adding that education and awareness for the people is the most important step especially in India which has more tobacco users than almost any country in the world.

Kulsum Mustafa
(The author is a senior journalist and Secretary-General of Media Nest)

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