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SC ruling on Pan masala, gutkha: Health bodies to approach Centre for ban

P.T. Jyothi Datta

Union Health Ministry officials point out that the Tobacco Control Act only tackles sale in public places, sale to children, advertising and labelling issues. It does not touch the manufacture of tobacco products.

Mumbai , Aug 4

AS the smoke clears over the Supreme Court directive that struck down the State-level ban on gutkha and pan masala - advocacy groups working in the health sector are hoping to convert a "setback" into an opportunity.

"The directive is a setback, since States like Maharashtra had succeeded in curbing access to pan masala and gutkha products, particularly to children. Since the State ban was struck down on technical or jurisdiction grounds - we will approach the Centre to use this as a stimulus and explore ways to invoke the directive, along with the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act to bring a Central ban on the consumption of gutkha and pan masala," said Ms Shoba John of the Cancer Patients Aid Association.

"Cigarettes account for 16 per cent of total tobacco consumption and bidis about 64 per cent, the rest is smokeless tobacco and this is a problem that finds large prevalence in India," she added.

Hammering the health argument further, Dr Srinath Reddy, Professor of Cardiology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, said: "Chewing tobacco is serious because of the link to oral cancer. Consumption is rampant among women and children since the taboo of smoking a cigarette is not associated with it," he points out.

"Studies done in 1997 found the consumption of these products at between 10 and 40 per cent in school children and 70 per cent in college students. This was one of the reasons that the Maharashtra Government cracked down on the sale. The apex court's recent directive does not take away from the health hazard posed by these products," he adds.

Union Health Ministry officials point out that the Tobacco Control Act only tackles sale in public places, sale to children, advertising and labelling issues. It does not touch the manufacture of tobacco products. "This has to be dealt with in a structured manner, since there are employment and cultivation issues," he said.

According to Dr Prakash Gupta, who conducted a global World Health Organisation study on tobacco consumption patterns among youth: "The global practice is to have the stronger law prevailing in cases of public health. This should have been the case here too." Dr Gupta, till recently, was with the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research.

Mr A. Ramakrishnan, Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration-Maharashtra, said that the development would be "reviewed" from a judicial point of view and a combined action taken from a legislative standpoint.

A Health Ministry source added: "The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA) provides for the ban of food substances in the interest of public health. The two mentioned items come under PFA. Also, the highest technical committee in the department - the Central Committee on Food Standards (CCFS) - has long recommended the ban of gutkha and pan masala." And so the baton stands clearly handed back to the Centre and how it will snuff the smoke out on this one.

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