China-India: Lest We All Go Up In Smoke by Prof. Swaran Singh

As China's National Health and Family Planning Commission promotes nation-wide debates from Shanghai for a national legislating for enforcing a ban on public-smoking by end of this year, Beijing has been witnessing anti-smoking volunteers (called blue jackets) barging into office buildings, supported by police, to rummage through dustbins to shame any one smoking inside of these public spaces. In first instance, they only "criticise and educate" these so-called 'offenders' but they threaten punishment and fines next time round.

The government in New Delhi has also been urging local police to ensure implementation of ban on public smoking as, earlier this year, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the Delhi High Court seeking this ban, which is already in place, to be made effective in actual practice. While India has evolved far more stringent set of laws against smoking and they ban any advertisements and promotion of tobacco products and India's Supreme Court had prohibited smoking in public places as early as a decade before during November 2001, its implementation, especially in case of chewing and other traditional forms of tobacco consumption, remain lax to say no more.

Indeed, both rising China and emerging India also continue to lead the world in smoking and other forms of tobacco-consumption which threatens to retard and slow down their becoming iconic trend setters for other societies around the world. More than half of world's tobacco users live in China and India. Various estimates show about 320 million tobacco users are today living in China followed by over 275 million living in India. What is especially worrying is that other than the rising political clout and social influence of pro-tobacco-lobbies, tobacco use is not widely viewed in these two Asian societies as a major threat to life and even to people's social existence. Conversely, smoking is often projected as a form of style and strength which appeals to their younger generations. This is visible in rather low quitting rates while this addiction continues to engulf both Chinese and Indian productive age populations making them vulnerable to avoidable ailments that make them nothing but burden for their societies. One could even see link of smoking and tobacco-consumption criminal and arrogant social behaviours, at least this how it is exhibited by both Chinese and Indian popular cinemas.

On a serious note, various estimates show that apart from leading in terms of tobacco-consumption, China and India also remain world leaders in both production and export of tobacco products. China alone accounts for over 35 per cent of world production of tobacco which, as a cash crop in these two Asian societies, provides source of livelihood for millions of people. This labour intensive tobacco-farming has few soil requirements and this crop can grow quickly in as less as three months’ time. No doubt China and India represent largest share of agricultural land in the world under tobacco production. Estimates based on sales and gross turn overs variably project either China National Tobacco Corporation (中国烟草总公司) or India's century old Indian Tobacco Company (ITC) as world leaders. Of course, they remain monopolies in their respective countries and are projected as major contributors to their respective country's gross national product.

In both China and India, these leading companies have since adopted smart strategies of using charities for tax avoidance as also their heavy tax-payments to obtain credibility amounts their national leaders and they continue to thrive in spite of adverse health and medical report repeatedly declaring tobacco as the biggest killer of people in both these nations. They also use innovative ways to remain attractive like launching organic tobacco and e-cigarettes to entice new addicts to who see themselves enlighten and therefore not using conventional tobacco products. They nevertheless end up promoting tobacco-use amongst their fellow citizens.

Rapidly developing societies like China and India with ever increasing purchasing power in hands of younger generations remain especially vulnerable to tobacco-addictions. The middle classes and the poor people, especially in least developed regions of China and India, are in particular vulnerable and past years have witnessed millions of them dying each year due to tobacco related ailments. In both China and India, tobacco use has also been known for having close connection with drugs and drug-trafficking and other kinds of crimes. Both China and India have deeply ingrained smoking cultures that go back to ancient times. Indian Gods are shown smoking though modern tobacco-use is clearly blamed on European imperialists' influence from early modern times. So in case of China and India addressing tobacco use has to evolve strategies that incorporate both commercial as also cultural tools and typologies to make them effective on the ground.

Right from its introduction in the 16th century, tobacco-use in modern times has never been considered as a good habit. Nevertheless, it continues to be promoted partly as adventure, party as style and celebration. It was only following a spate of studies during 1950s which showed a whole lot of serious and incurable ailments being related to tobacco-use that anti-tobacco movements acquired global dimensions. This has since seen various nation-states promoting non-use and disincentives tobacco-use through various means like heavy taxation. Taxation strategies though have also resulted in creating vested interest inside the State not to completely disband tobacco-use amongst their people. Lately, anti-tobacco strategies have also been underlining its links with smog in their major cities leading to new thesis of "passive smoking" threatening especially the non-smoking children, elderly and pregnant women. Tobacco-use constitutes mixture of gases and particles that contain variety of chemicals with harmful impact for human health and human environment. Especially, indoor smoking that contains its impact to a limited space makes non-smokers in the vicinity involuntarily and unknowingly inhale these particles. Several kinds of cancers are today believed to be triggered by tobacco-use. Studies have shown how, as many as 50 per cent of deaths of all tobacco users, are linked to this habit. Several such studies believe that, on average, smokers tend to live 7.5 years shorter compared to non-smokers. A whole lot of diseases are today linked to tobacco-use yet it remains a thriving industry. As a result, in both China and India therefore it is mandatory for tobacco companies to display such information on cigarette packets.

According to a latest study released last month by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US National Cancer Institute, not wars or pandemics like Ebola but tobacco-use that remains the single largest preventable cause of human death around the world. At the global level as of now, it causes about 6 million deaths every year and, in spite of all efforts, this number is expected to rise to 8 million deaths by 2030. This WHO study has been peer-reviewed by over 70 top scientists and it shows that even financially, while global expenditure on tobacco related health care and lost work hours cost was well over $1.4 trillion, total global tax revenues from tobacco products were mere $269 billion for the year 2014.

Higher taxation has often been prescribed in most societies as a quick solution to discourage tobacco-use. But in case of both China and India this has not been quite effective given their rapidly rising purchasing power. Both China and India that have witnessed soaring income levels each year with greater part of financial resources being used for seeking pleasure. This surely calls for out of box thinking and cross-fertilization of ideas to evolve hybrid anti-tobacco strategies. State has to incentivize and involve stakeholders from amongst civil society, media and relevant non-governmental organisations. So, as China debates on evolving its national legislating for implementing a nation-wide smoking ban, it can learn from India's experience and widen its net to all kinds of tobacco-use and incentivize avoiding and quitting. Banning smoking alone could push people to other forms of tobacco-use which may be far more dangerous and unproven in terms of their negative effects on health and social behaviour. While China can learn from India's experience in legislating for such a comprehensive tobacco-ban in face of diverse and deep-seated cultural and commercial linkages with tobacco-use, especially smoking, India can sure learn from China's civil society interventions and effective policing for implementing their tobacco-ban policies.

In the end, both China and India need to share notes and together evolve proactive anti-tobacco strategies of expanding awareness, advocacy and outreach thereby creating social and financial incentives for avoiding and quitting tobacco-use. These strategies have a proven record of having worked well with most developed societies. Policies like banning sale of tobacco products near schools or say to those under 21 years of age, creating tobacco-free zones like inside of office buildings and whole of public parks and university campuses and strictly banning any form of use of tobacco in films have proved effective in several developed societies and can also prove effective in case of China and India. Russia is also contemplating a complete tobacco-ban for those born after 2015! Given their often-acrimonious interactions, to what extent this urgent need to discourage and ban=-tobacco use will be met will have a direct bearing on both the overall tenor of China-India relations as also its domestic outcomes for both China and India.