Our Dream: A Tobacco-Free Future For Every Child

Tobacco is the only legal consumer product that kills when used exactly as indicated by the manufacturer. This catastrophe called tobacco gives out a scary factsheet. According to the estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO) about 1 billion people around the world will die from smoking in the 21st century, which is ten times the numbers killed throughout the 20th century. The World Health Organisation's 2012 Global Report on Mortality attributable to tobacco shows that seven percent of all deaths for age 30 years and over in India are attributable to tobacco. 

The proportion of deaths is almost 12 per cent for men and 1 per cent for women. If this is not alarming enough, here are some more eye openers: Around 5,500 children below the age of 15 try tobacco for the first time every day in India. There are around five million children who are addicted to tobacco. Yet incredibly, despite the dangers of tobacco having been documented and widely known for decades, it has devastated several lives and, worse, has made our children its most vulnerable victims.

It is the easy availability of gutkha, beedis, cigarettes and other tobacco products with very little control over who buys them that has led to such alarming statistics. What is more appalling is the fact that of the children who try tobacco, most have very little idea about the damage these products cause to their bodies. They then become the easiest targets for tobacco companies.

The idea of Salaam Bombay Foundation was born to empower these children to live their life free from the threat of tobacco and become confident adults to lead tomorrow’s India. We believe that children grow as their horizons grow – the broader their horizon, the greater their hopes and higher their aspirations.  Children can make correct informed decisions only if they are given access to appropriate information and life skill tools to deal with situations they encounter in every-day life. Our tobacco control and advocacy programs revolve around this very thought. 

Currently, the Salaam Bombay Foundation is active in 173 municipal schools and 37 government-aided schools in Mumbai and its outreach programme has reached 27 districts in rural Maharashtra, bringing it in contact with over one million children. Children have always been the focus of all our advocacy programs and initiatives. With their help, what began as an advocacy program has now turned into a revolution. Consistent efforts with the children have resulted in a committed group of change agents who have experienced success by being able to influence members of their own family, friends and large audiences with an equal impact. 

What is interesting to understand is how we have brought about this movement for tobacco control. Every year, more than 35,000 children sign up to work in close collaboration with stakeholders like the police, the municipal corporation, Food and Drugs Administration, the BEST and the media for implementation of tobacco control laws. Our children have access to life skills training, hands-on experience and exposure to various creative pursuits and opportunities for interaction with the target audience on a regular basis--be it convincing the government to take immediate action against 200 illegal tobacco shops in the vicinity of their schools or doing a random check on the implementation of the smoking ban in 1,000 restaurants across the city, our children have always taken up the cudgels and become role models.  

It is important to have a holistic approach in designing any developmental project. Addictions are generally the result of low self- esteem, lack of refusal skills and peer pressure. At Salaam Bombay Foundation, the entire thrust is to create awareness and facilitate a mindset change. Our modules are built in a manner where they work at several levels to create awareness and build on life skills. We strive to provide children with opportunities to enhance their skills and feed their passions with the help of tools like sports and arts. Festivals play a very important role in our programs. They are an ideal platform to reach out to people and make an emotional connect to spread a message.

In September 2010, Salaam Bombay Foundation conducted advocacy programs at 173 Ganpati mandals in and around Mumbai during the ten-day festival of Ganeshotsav. The ultimate effect of this intervention resulted in the release of a circular from the License Department to the Association of Ganpati Mandals banning tobacco advertisements, with the result that for the first time in Mumbai, none of the 12,000 odd Ganapati mandals neither took any sponsorship from tobacco companies, nor advertised their products.  

Another highlight of the program has been a study we conducted in May 2011 in the island city of Mumbai and its suburbs to understand the prevalence of smokeless tobacco use. Outdoor advertisements of pan masalas with names similar to tobacco products had been observed especially on buses and bus stops. The action resulted in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation issuing an official letter to all the vendors strictly restricting the display of any surrogate advertisements for tobacco products and we found that within a month most of these advertisements were removed from the BEST buses. However, loopholes continue to be a problem. We have not given up our fight and continue to carry dialogue and put pressure for the complete ban of surrogate advertising on the BEST buses.

In 2011, we also conducted an observational study in 91 municipal schools in the city to find out if the rules laid down by the COTPA 2003, banning the sale of tobacco products within a radius of 100 yards of educational institutions are even being complied with. The findings displayed a worrying picture. Salaam Bombay Foundation then conducted sensitization meetings with Minister of State for FDA, the Health Department, the Education Department and the Police Department. The result was a long overdue meeting of State Tobacco Control Cells and the launch of the ‘Tobacco Free Educational Institute Campaign' by the Food and Drug Administration on November 14, 2011 on the occasion of Children’s Day.

In April this year, we also held sensitization workshops for members of the State Assembly that were attended by the Chief Minister, the Ministers and Members of both the Houses.

Studies have shown that if children manage to stay away from tobacco till the age of 18, there is a very high chance that they will never take to it. That is what we at Salaam Bombay Foundation endeavour to do. In fact, a pandemic of tobacco-related deaths and disease is poised to claim a million lives each year in India unless we have more and more people coming forward to take the fight against the killer disease. Our dream is to create a tobacco-free world for every child. It is a battle our children are fighting and it is not an easy battle. But they have the gumption to clamp down on the killer disease. We are confident that children will eventually turn our dream of a tobacco free society turn into a reality!

Devika Chadha
Programme Director, Salaam Bombay Foundation