It is easier to stay out than to get out

Carolyn Kavita Tauro, CNS Correspondent
It was World No Tobacco Day on the 31st of May… So what? We, the non-tobacco consumers, carried out a few rallies, made pledges to never smoke again (for those who did), made a few speeches about the loved ones we have lost to tobacco, shed a few tears and begged our smoker friends to stop smoking… to please stop smoking. What is really all the fuss about?

I spoke to a few of the people we come across on a busy street in Mumbai. A taxi-driver had this to say, “I don’t smoke myself, but many a times passengers light up a cigarette. I have tried asking them not to smoke in the car, but all I get back are angry words”.

A lady selling vegetables on the train, when asked if she consumed tobacco, exclaimed, “My husband does! If only he stopped… he has been admitted in a hospital several times due to breathing difficulties…I think it’s too late”.

“I worry for my unborn child”, said a young IT professional whose young husband is in the entertainment industry and has been unable to quit smoking due to peer pressure. “When I came to Mumbai as a newly wedded bride, my mother-in-law said this (tobacco chewing) will keep me warm and alert. Since then, I have one after every meal”, said a 55 - year old housewife living in one of the slums in Mumbai.

“Why shouldn’t I smoke? Women are equal to men in today’s world”, exclaimed a 24- year college student. Have we not done enough to get people to stop consuming tobacco? Well, let us see… we have made it known that nearly 6 million people each year die because of tobacco related diseases, that 600 000 of these are just those inhaling smoke that others have exhaled, that death is certain but it is not quick – it will kill you by the minute – eating up your mouth, your lungs and every organ left thereafter…

We have banned the sale of tobacco in and around schools and colleges (even if theoretically), banned smoking in public areas (not all of course), printed gory but real pictures on the packs of cigarettes, asked tobacco consumers to stop smoking for the sake of their wives, their young children, their old parents… So what really is left for us to do?

How then should governments fight this deadly epidemic? “Increasing taxes on tobacco products is the most effective policy measure a government can take to reduce tobacco-related mortality across a population”, says Dr Ehsan Latif, Director - Tobacco Control, International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union). Raising taxes, many say, will discourage young people, who may still not be addicted, from buying tobacco products, the money spent on which could be used for other essential items. This concept, however, is rejected by many who insist that those who consume tobacco will continue to do so come what may. Estimates from the World Bank show that increasing taxes would mean a decrease in consumption and that this decrease directly means more lives saved. It is estimated that a 10% increase in the price of cigarettes would reduce the number of smokers by 42 million, 38 million of who are from the low- to middle-income countries and save 10 million lives, 9 million of who belong to the low- and middle-income countries.

It is also believed that the people who are affected the most are not those with high incomes, but the construction workers, labourers, rag pickers and other people living in poverty. This step, though, may not be effective unless taxes are raised to a very high amount. In India tobacco is mostly consumed in the form of beedis and chewing tobacco and currently taxes on them are dismally low. This then has very little effect on consumers. Dr. Harsh Vardhan, the newly appointed Health Minister of India, released the report entitled Economic Burden of Tobacco Related Diseases in India, claiming that large expenditures of millions from tobacco users would push their families deeper into poverty, also decelerating the economic growth of the country.

What are the benefits of raising taxes on tobacco products then?
WHO pic on raising tax on tobacco
“Raising taxes is seen as an attractive measure for governments, as it increases their revenues…some countries like the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, for example, are using this extra income to fund tobacco control and to invest in other preventative health measures. Other low and middle income countries need to follow suit to create resources for tobacco control now, and also to create a tobacco control fund which is sustainable into the future,” says Dr Latif.

According to the WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2013, total annual tax revenue from all tobacco products was Rs.1213 crores. However, the total government expenditure on tobacco control was Rs.2.96 crores only. Where is the rest of the revenue used? Is tax coming from tobacco products not best used in tobacco control? This contribution to tobacco control could materialize in the form of mechanisms that help the population quit smoking e.g. helplines, de-addiction counselling centres, peer support groups etc.

In addition to the benefits to the government, the economy of the country would gain from lesser number of people smoking as days of absenteeism, or early retirements due to illness or deaths would be reduced. Individuals and their families would have more to spend on food, education and health.

Apart from all of the above benefits of saving, raised taxes that deter one to buy cigarettes would protect oneself and family from second and third hand smoke. Third-hand smoke refers to remnants left on surfaces after the cigarette or beedi has been extinguished. It is thought to cause harm to infants and young children especially, since they crawl and often have their hands or inanimate objects in their mouth to suck, lick or even eat, causing them to swallow the toxins. If you hear yourself say, “Oh that is fine because I only smoke when I am out of the house”, do ask yourself if you wash yourself before lifting up your baby in your arms when you reach home.

If that is not enough reason to stop smoking here is more: in the United States, depending on which state one lives in, a pack-a-day smoker who has quit, saves anywhere from $1, 620 to $3, 670. This is because, apart from cutting costs on cigarette packs, one pays less for health insurance, cleaning and maintenance costs for houses and cars and gets higher resale prices for these items.

Please do not wait for another New Year’s Eve to make that resolution to quit smoking. And all of you who have had more than one instances you have been tempted to start smoking, remember the words of Mark Twain “It is easier to stay out, than to get out”.

Carolyn Kavita Tauro, Citizen News Service - CNS 
2 June 2014