Late Minister’s Wife writes to TOI & HT Editors: Gutka Ads are Misinforming Readers

3 October 2012, Mumbai: Dear Sir, In the past few days, readers of the Mumbai and Delhi editions of your esteemed dailies have been targeted by a front-page advertisement issued by the gutka manufacturers’ lobby. I would like to caution you that not only is this ad full of lies and half-truths, but also, it constitutes an in-your-face contempt of court. Through this ad, the gutka industry seeks to raise an outcry against the judgments of six High Courts, including Bombay and Delhi High Court, that have ruled in favour of the ban. Sir, are you aware that by publishing this ad, you are unwittingly made into accomplices in openly defying the judiciary? Have you considered the possibility of Contempt of Court notices being issued against your newspapers and you personally?

Let me introduce myself. I am Mrs Sumitra Pednekar, wife of Maharashtra’s former home and labour minister Satish Pednekar, who died of oral cancer last year. My husband’s illness happened because of his addiction to mawa, a mix of chewing tobacco and pan masala. In his last few months, my husband could not swallow even watery dal-khichdi. My daughters and I are still struggling to come to terms with the scars left by his extended illness and tragic demise.

 

This ad that you have been publishing appears to be a last-gasp effort of this industry to get popular support for an unjust and inhuman industry that has made many victims like myself. Below is our rebuttal to the untruths that the ad seeks to spread. We urge you to carry this rebuttal prominently to counter the misinformation spread by the ad:

1) This ad claims, “14 states in India believe that cigarettes are healthy”. This is patently untrue because cigarettes sold everywhere are forced to prominently carry a statutory pictorial warning that states that cigarette smoking is injurious to health. There is no state in India where cigarettes are considered “healthy”.

2) The ad argues, “Gutka with lesser tobacco is banned in 14 states, while cigarettes which have more tobacco are not.” This is a deeply flawed argument. Gutka and cigarette are governed by two different legislations. Gutka is a food product containing tobacco, and cigarettes are not a food product. The sale of gutka has been banned under the Food Safety Act 2006 and Food Safety Regulations, whereas cigarettes and bidis are not governed under this act, as they are not food products. They are governed by the provisions of COTPA (Cigarettes & Other Tobacco Products Act). The gutka manufacturers have tried hard to have it classified as “not a food”, but unfortunately for them, gutka was defined as food item by Supreme Court in the Ghodavat Pan Masala case. The license for manufacturing gutka is issued by the food ministry. So, the gutka manufacturers are trying to mislead people by equating gutka (a toxic food product) with cigarette/bidi (a harmful tobacco product that cannot be eaten). Please note, there is no ban on tobacco, which is simply an agricultural crop and a naturally occurring plant material. However, there is a ban on adding this plant material into any food meant for human ingestion, because it is toxic. Food Safety Act bans adding known toxins in food.

3) The ad claims, “One pouch of gutka contains 0.2 g of tobacco, compared to 0.63 g in one cigarette”. This statistic tries to imply that less tobacco is safer. That is incorrect. There is no safe level of tobacco consumption, and it is harmful in any quantity and in all forms. This fact is well recognized by Govt. of India, which is doing a lot to minimize its consumption in all forms.

4) The ad claims, “A cigarette has 4000 chemicals, as opposed to 3000 in smokeless tobacco”. This is a meaningless statistic thrown at half-literate people to mislead them. It has no scientific basis whatsoever.

5) The ad claims, “Unlike cigarettes, gutka is not harmful for others around you”. This is an effort to obfuscate the issue of gutka ban with the second-hand smoking issue. It implies that consuming gutka is a “victimless crime”, and that the gutka-eater is not harming anyone in society. That is untrue. When a person consuming gutka suffers from oral cancer, his entire family is the sufferer; who should know this better than I? In many cases, the cheeks, upper and lower jaws of the gutka consumer are removed. Such a person is unable to eat or speak normally, and must overcome many hurdles to function as in society and in any occupation. The spouse of the gutka addict is a victim of his consumption in economic and social terms. Every gutka addicts who contracts oral cancer creates 4-5 scarred victims created in his family, for whom life will never be the same again. There is no complete cure. Even after surgery and treatment, such people and their families live in the lifelong fear of recurrence. Tata Memorial Hospital is full of such victims, queuing up for treatment and post-surgical checkups.

6) Lastly, the ad claims, “Thousands of small gutka manufacturers are being shut down by the powerful lobby of cigarette companies”. The effort here is to paint the powerful and influential gutka lobby in the colours of a victim. It is most emphatically not a victim, but the perpetrator of a crime against humanity that is at long last being curbed. The in states gutka bans are not happening because of the cigarette lobby, but because of a central legislation, namely the Food Safety Act 2006, which is simply being implemented by the states. It is happening because the government is simply doing its mandated duty to improve the nutritional status of its citizens, by preventing adulterants and toxic substances from being added into foods.

May we once again remind you that the ban on gutka has been imposed after the High Courts of Rajasthan, MP, Bihar, Kerala, Bombay and Delhi applied their mind to the gutka manufacturers’ pleas for stay on the ban, and rejected their pleas? By challenging this ban through advertisements, the gutka manufacturers are treading on extremely dangerous territory… and so are you. In the interest of your readers, and in your own interest, we would urge you not to publish such ads.

With Best Wishes,
Sumitra Satish Pednekar

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