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Despite ban, chewing tobacco sales continue briskly

5,May, 2017

Bengaluru: Despite a Food Safety Commissionerate order and a state government submission to the high court last November, reiterating compliance with the ban on sale of all forms of chewing tobacco, there seems to be no difference in the situation on the ground.

Many small shops across the city sell gutkha and other tobacco products (See pix).

The government filed an affidavit stating that it would enforce the provisions of the Food Safety and Standards (Prohibition and Restriction on Sales) Regulation, 2011, section 2.3.4 of which states that "tobacco and nicotine shall not be used as ingredients in any food product" and Shalini Rajneesh, principal secretary, department of health and family welfare, sought six weeks to work towards it. However, a legal notice filed by the Cancer Patients’ Aid Association last month claims a "deliberate and intentional act or reckless failure" of health officials in allowing the public access to chewing tobacco.

Shalini maintains that raids continue on shops and stores selling chewing tobacco in its various forms, like gutkha, pan masala etc. "A ban on the manufacture of chewing tobacco cannot be enforced," she said.

Subodh Yadav, state food safety commissioner, said that tobacco units had been permitted under the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA), which empowers them to manufacture tobacco under certain terms and conditions — such as the display of health warnings on packets, prohibiting their sale less than 100 metres from educational institutions and to minors, and so on, and all companies fall under the ambit of the Act.

"As and when these terms and conditions are violated, the authorities can step in and take action as per COTPA. This Act predates the Food Safety regulation, which is not a pure Act but regulates the presence of tobacco and nicotine in food items — in this context, anything that is consumed orally,” he said.

But Dr Vishal Rao, oral oncologist and member of a high-powered committee (HPC) formed two years ago under the chief secretary to advise on tobacco use, said that chewing tobacco should have been banned by the same Act in 2011.

"Anything that is orally ingested constitutes food. By section 2.3.4 of the food safety rules, since chewing tobacco is put into the mouth and consumed, it immediately becomes food. However, over time, various methods were used to manipulate this definition to continue to sell the product. They even started selling it separately, instead of adding tobacco to food (flavoured additives like pan masala), allowing users to buy sachets and mix as they wished," he said.

Dr Rao added that of the approximately 19 departments that came under the HPC, the health lobby was the weakest, with departments like finance, tax, excise and agriculture taking precedence.

Yadav added that the Food Safety regulation was technically weaker than COTPA and section 2.3.4 talked about mixing ‘food items’ with tobacco, which isn’t happening anymore as companies ensure they are sold separately.

"The authority can act as long as these components are mixed. Despite that, we have gone into overdrive and beyond the SC directive by taking action against manufacturers also. We have the power to issue notices, seize samples, send them for tests and file cases but not to shut down manufacturing units," he said.

‘We cannot stop consumption’

All individuals are responsible for their own health. A consumer makes an informed choice to consume something. How can I come into the picture and stop somebody? As an authority, we have segregated tobacco from food by ensuring that they are sold separately, but people are buying, mixing and consuming tobacco. Beyond that, what can we do?

Subodh Yadav | Karnataka food safety commissioner


(As on May 3, 2017)

20,909 Inspections/ raids

1,261 Samples taken

26,27,308 Sachets seized

46,840 Pouches seized

Rs 2,01,530 Recovered in penalties

68 Cases filed (ADC court)

2,569 Notices issued

(Source: Office of Food Safety and Standard Act, Public Health Institute, Bengaluru)

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