Dirty Secrets… The Smoke-Less Affair

Post written by Shalini

90% of oral cancer cases among Indian men are attributable to tobacco consumption, according to the World Health Organization.

Since 2010, India has been engaged in a major war against smokeless or oral tobacco products, including a ban on gutka. Gutka is a popular oral tobacco product that is a highly addictive concoction of more than 3000 chemicals, including heavy metals like lead and ingredients found in coal tar. Gutka was sold for as cheap as a rupee or two, making it by far the cheapest smokeless tobacco product available.

As a journalist, I had the opportunity to cover both sides of the story. The smokeless tobacco industry in India proved to be a rich lobby but one that ultimately lost the legal war.. Its most profitable product is now banned. But while that ban was struggling to make its way to each state in India, the industry endlessly debated the legality of the law. The Indian tobacco industry also argued that while restrictions were being tightened on the domestic industry, the multinationals that manufacture mostly cigarettes were facing no such restrictions on their deadly products. The industry argued against cancer surgeons, public health activists, the health ministry, even cancer victims. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the industry continues to circumvent the ban in many innovative ways.

But what interests me is one particular argument the industry made against the ban on gutka. The industry questioned the link between chewing tobacco and cancer. They have been quoted as saying that cancer can be caused by pollution, pesticide residues in the environment and even chillies! They questioned, how can a doctor or any public health activist or the government prove that cancer was caused by chewing tobacco? Oral cancer surgeons and cancer institutes across the country had already written to the Prime Minister, stating that cancer wards are burgeoning with victims of tobacco, especially oral tobacco and imploring the government to ban such products. But the industry wasn’t satisfied.

But I have now found some answers that will be satisfying, from the industry’s own internal documents.

Here’s an industry document (BATES number: 521034348-52103435) from the Tobacco Legacy Documents labelled as a ‘privileged’ and ‘internal correspondence’ from the year 1979 – a letter written to the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, detailing what was discussed at a meeting of the ‘Smokeless Tobacco Council’ on health research.

And here’s what it confesses. I quote:

“…the prevailing theory is that the best position for the STC (Smokeless Tobacco Council) is on the question of the effect on the human body of the whole product and to identify various constituents, many of which might be defined as tumorigenic in other contexts would weaken the industry’s position. In other words, it is “the other side’s” duty to produce allegations that certain constituents result from the use of smokeless tobacco and are harmful.”

It is important to note here that the (European) Smokeless Tobacco Council is a lobbying group that campaigns against the European Union’s ban on oral tobacco products. There’s a similar body in both the US, and in India  the SLTF or the Smokeless Tobacco Federation, which acts as the mouthpiece of the industry.

In this document, it is clear that the Smokeless Tobacco Council’s own health research had found back in 1979 that not one but many of the constituents in its products were cancer causing. And, that they knew it all along.

When it says it is “the other side’s” duty to produce allegations – it is cleverly putting the responsibility of proving the charges on whoever tries to challenge them. In this case, doctors, cancer surgeons, victims and governments – across the world. And they have been doing this for more than three decades.

While the smokeless tobacco industry in India is said to have ‘domestic’ roots, it is interesting to note that these companies sell their products in many other countries including the US. The Indian industry adopted the same argument, strategy and method of dealing with the allegations that smokeless products were causing a public health epidemic.

Another related internal document (Bates number: 521034371-521034372) shows that the cigarette company Brown & Williamson Corporation made a contribution of five thousand dollars to the Smokeless Tobacco Council, while choosing to not become a member. The cigarette companies took an interest in the smokeless products and knew how harmful they were, but decided to not let out the evidence. What has been typically happening in India is that each time the issue of health harms is raised, the smokeless tobacco companies and the cigarette companies turn to blame the other. They also come together at times that best suit them, for example when protesting against taxes or pictorial warnings. But once the pictorial warnings were issued, the smokeless industry fought with the government, saying the cigarette industry got away with watered down warnings. The cigarette industry was in on the smokeless industry’s secrets.

206 million Indians consume smokeless tobacco products and nearly 5 million Indian children are already addicted to them, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) and Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS). That’s more than the population of Brazil, or the population of Egypt, or Mexico. That’s as many lives at risk of painful and fatal cancers. That’s many little children whose lives are at stake. That’s an industry which makes money out of filling coffins. Of ruined lives.

That’s a dirty secret, indeed.

Shalini has worked as a television health journalist for 9 years, with CNN-IBN (Indian affiliate of CNN International) in India. She has covered disease outbreaks, medical breakthroughs, and has extensively reported on public health epidemics like tobacco control. At present, she is working with the Public Health Foundation of India.

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