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Plastic gutka sachets banned, really?

Sunday March 06, 2011 05:37:58 PM, Madhulika Sonkar, IANS

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New Delhi: On a lazy afternoon in the Delhi University area, 19-year-old Naresh Singh is whiling away his break at a cigarette shop. As he leisurely chews on some gutka, he breaks into a laugh on being told that gutka sale in plastic sachets is banned.

"Is it a joke? That is not possible, I just bought a regular plastic sachet of gutka from this shop," Naresh says, pointing towards the generous cache of sachets.

Days after the implementation of a Supreme Court ban on sale of tobacco products like gutka and pan masala in plastic sachets, consumers and vendors seem to be indifferent.

"It just looks normal to buy it even after the ban. There was no public announcement; neither did the shopkeeper point it out," Naresh tells IANS as he tosses the non-biodegradable sachet in the bushes.

The apex court passed the order while hearing a petition by the tobacco manufacturers challenging the Rajasthan High Court's 2007 order banning the sale of chewing tobacco and pan masala in plastic sachets. The ban came into effect March 1, 2011.

While hearing the appeal, the solicitor general admitted that 86 percent of oral cancer cases in the world originate from India and of these, 90 percent are on account of chewing tobacco products.

M.S. Gupta, an employee at a store selling gutka in south Delhi, said: "We will continue to sell the stock that has been manufactured and supplied till Feb 28. That cannot be helped."

"We sell a minimum of 60 sachets every day. So the dealers supply stock according to our sales," added Gupta.

However, environmental activists call it a "multi-layered" ban and say it has a long way to go in terms of implementation.

"This ban is keeping in view the environmental hazards of plastic sachets, and is not something that comes straight against the gutka industry. The ban does not say that tobacco will not be sold at all," Bhavna Mukhopadhyay, executive director of Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI), told IANS.

"It is a welcome step, but only from the environmental perspective. I don't see the ban bringing about any change in the health problems caused by tobacco," added Mukhopadhyay.

However, Bharti Chaturvedi, director of voluntary environmental research and action group Chintan, calls the ban a "muddled up judgment" as it is "neither of full help to the anti-tobacco lobby, nor is it going to help the environmentalists completely".

"However, it can help if there is focus on its implementation," says Chaturvedi, a member of the plastic report team that presented its report to the apex court before the judgment.

She says that "smokeless tobacco, priced between Rs.1 and Rs.7, has wide reach in small segments of society. The local bodies should call the manufacturers, come up with a deadline to stop the supply of plastic sachet gutkha, and take it back from collection centres".

Mukhopadhyay feels "the government and the court need to crack down heavily on the industry directly".

"They need to have stringent restrictions on surrogate advertising of tobacco, the labels and open advertisement and even focus on awareness creation," he said.

The last word of caution comes from health experts who believe that smokeless tobacco has made India the "oral cancer capital of the world".

"The ban would not be of much help even if you increase the cost of gutka as the product is locally manufactured. And now we are seeing patients from rural areas who have serious problem of oral fibrosis," says P.K. Julka, surgical oncologist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

"Lack of awareness is what we are noticing as the major loophole in any ban related to smoking or tobacco for that matter," added Julka.

(Madhulika Sonkar can be contacted at




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