New Delhi, Sep 13 (IANS) Consumer Online Foundation (COF), a not-for-profit consumer rights organisation, has unveiled a specially tailored all-inclusive survey report on the challenges emerging from the New COTPA Amendment Bill 2020 for consumers and their right to informed choice based on the constitutional freedom of expression and liberty.
The survey report titled ‘Public Opinion on Tobacco Control Regulations’ covered 5116 respondents pan-India including people from north-eastern states to analyse the ground realities, opinions, concerns, and voice of consumers, who while being the final impact bearers of legislative changes find it difficult or sometimes impossible to bring forth their views to the centre stage.
The illicit tobacco trade is a major cause of concern for the government and law enforcement agencies. A significant amount of this trade happens though unfenced border of 1,640-km that north-eastern states such as Assam, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh etc share with countries like China, Myanmar, Bangladesh. Though varying degrees of success have been achieved by these states in controlling the illicit tobacco trade, non-prioritization of tobacco control at the sub-national level and ineffective implementation of tobacco control policies continue to pose a significant challenge to tobacco control in India.
Commenting on the COTPA survey findings, Prof Bejon Misra, Founder Trustee of Consumer Online Foundation, and a renowned Consumer Activist said, “The Consumer Online Foundation took it upon itself to collect the views of consumers on the new amendments in the COTPA law and table it for the consideration of policymakers. The study brings to the fore that the proposed amendments in the tobacco control law are more likely to increase illicit tobacco trade in the country thereby encouraging tobacco consumption instead of discouraging it.”
“There is a strong need to regulate unorganised tobacco trade and bring equitable taxation policies to safeguard Indian consumers from inferior quality tobacco products. We need enabling laws and not punitive and aggressive legislations that can cause mental agony and depression.” Misra added
India is home to the second-largest tobacco-using population in the world after China. Tobacco consumption causes 1 in 6 NCD (Non-Communicable Disease) deaths in the country. To address this situation, the government has been looking to improve tobacco control efforts by strengthening the existing tobacco legislation through the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) Amendment Bill, 2020. Even though this is a step in the right direction, there exists a dichotomy in the government policy which on one hand is bringing regulation to control tobacco consumption and on the other hand is collecting more than Rs 43,000 crores as tax revenue from tobacco products.
The report underlined that the focus of the entire bill, represented through its very title, lays majorly on Cigarettes as others tobacco products do not find any mention in the heading of the legislation. It raised the question of whether any other tobacco products are not as important for the government to be regulated as cigarettes or it is because of some misconceptions about their amount of consumption. In this context, it is worth noting that even the World Health Organization (WHO) has acknowledged that the most prevalent form of tobacco consumption in India is smokeless tobacco and commonly used products are khaini, gutkha, betel quid with tobacco, and zarda. This is further confirmed by survey findings which revealed that beedi and chewable tobacco comprised over 75% of tobacco consumption in India followed by cigarettes at 20.89%.
The report observed that if the actual age of initiation of tobacco consumption is 21 to 30 years and over 30 years categories, it is much before this that the awareness campaigns should start for people in these age groups. This is important as any habit good or bad takes time to fully cultivate itself in any individual and this conception period needs to be snapped. The survey confirmed that around 57% of the respondents consumed tobacco for the first time at the age of 18 years.
On the move by the government to increase the legal age for purchase of tobacco products from 18 years to 21 years, it stated that the legal adult age in the country is 18 for most purposes. It further remarked that in consonance with the above-mentioned law, one should be considered old enough to make his choice regarding tobacco consumption just like he or she is allowed to vote or secure a driving license. The survey also pointed to the arbitrary provision in the law which proposes either Rs 1 lakh fine or 7 years of imprisonment or both for a tobacco seller in case of his/her failure to identify the correct legal age of the buyer who may be below 21 years of age.
Analysing the proposal to ban all forms of tobacco advertisement, the survey showed that an overwhelming 81.9% of tobacco respondents feel that brand information impacts their purchasing behavior/pattern. It indicated that 81.6% of respondents think that it will be easier for them to locate tobacco shops if such shops are allowed to put up display boards or banners thus making it clear that advertisements are not for promoting consumption of tobacco products. Advertisements are in fact, a source of key information for them such as the weight or quantity of the product, the country where it is being manufactured, and the brand that is endorsing a product. It is these factors that help the consumer to decide whether to buy a product or refrain from purchasing it.
Talking about the roles and responsibilities of law enforcement agencies, the report highlighted that though the new bill proposes to enhance the punishments for failure to adhere to the law and envisages to tackle black marketing and smuggling of tobacco products it does not assign any guidelines for them in this regard. It asserted that in such a situation the public authority will not have any constructive role to play in controlling the tobacco consumption with their role limited to writing off a probable challan.
On the issue of victimisation by law enforcement agencies, over 63% of the respondents replied that they were harassed even for responsible consumption of tobacco. On being asked if they would prefer smuggled but untaxed and low-quality tobacco over legal but taxed and high-quality tobacco, 77.50% showed an inclination for the first option. Revealing the likely impact on the consumption behaviour in case of the ban on the sale of loose tobacco/single stick cigarettes the survey further demonstrated that an overwhelming 93% of respondents believe that it will encourage them to smoke more.
As per the survey, 66.50% of respondents feel inconvenienced by second-hand smoke. It further disclosed that 64.40% think that designated smoking rooms are indeed helpful. This implies that the proposal to shut down all such designated smoking areas in airports, restaurants, and hotels will increase the exposure of masses to second-hand smoke. It also brought to light that 43.3% of respondents feel that this move will curtail their right to consume tobacco responsibly while 23.4% are of the e view that the government is treating consumers of a legal product unfairly. Reacting to this provision, 22.9% of respondents stated that the government is restricting adults from performing a legal act.
The Survey findings have been collated by the eminent team of Consumer Online Foundation comprising of Advocate Srishty Jaura under the able supervision and recommendations by Professor Bejon Misra.