ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Tobacco and TUs : Wrong End of Stick

Wrong End of Stick There is sufficient evidence and documentation that the consumption of tobacco, in its various forms, is harmful to health. The health cost of tobacco consumption, the Indian Council of Medical Research has estimated, is of the order of Rs 3.5 lakh per case of tobacco-related cancer. There can be little estimate of other

There is sufficient evidence and documentation that the consumption of tobacco, in its various forms, is harmful to health. The health cost of tobacco consumption, the Indian Council of Medical Research has estimated, is of the order of Rs 3.5 lakh per case of tobacco-related cancer. There can be little estimate of other 'health' problems that tobacco causes. It is this kind of hard, well-documented evidence that has prompted the spate of tobacco-related cases in the US courts. These cases have produced, in the process, further data on the toxic nature of the chemicals and additives used in the industry, evidence, it must be noted, which the industry had for so long successfully suppressed when seeking clearance from US federal licensing agencies. Just as damaging to the entire industry is the documentation on the impact of tobacco manufacture on workers at all levels.<P>
These effects, it must be noted, are even worse for the extensive small-scale sector in India. In fact, a recent study on the beedi-industry published in the Medico Friend Circle Bulletin shows how the health cost of home-based women beedi-workers has escaped systematic documentation. There is sufficient reason to believe that the work affects reproductive outcomes, which in turn have a social impact. Moreover, the lack of appropriate labour legislation makes it impossible for these women and other such workers to seek compensation or to demand healthier work environments. Even in larger factories, there is little documentation of occupational health effects of working with potentially harmful materials. And it is here that the labour movement has failed. Often health and safety concerns have not been taken up for fear that any demand on these issues may prompt closures or retrenchments on spurious grounds such as modernisation for safer working conditions. Efforts by well known militant beedi workers' organisations, as in Nipani in Karnataka, have been directed at offering health care for women and at training women workers in providing health care. But the nature of the industry – the smallness of operations, the flexibility with which employers can move in and out of a place, the extreme vulnerability to market demands, and the easy availability of labour – have resulted in an underplaying of all but economic demands which can be met by employers without making any structural alterations in the production process. A contributing factor is the peculiar impact cash crops and agro-industries, especially with close links to the international markets, have on the economy of the region. Over the decades, the growth of this industry, with its high profits (and incomes, relatively) has ensured that all other economic activity in the region not related to tobacco has subsided or disappeared.<P>
This is perhaps what has prompted the rather remarkable protest that the country's five leading trade unions have launched against India accepting the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. In a joint memorandum to the prime minister, the AITUC, BMS, CITU, HMS and TUCC have sought the prime minister's assurance that the country would not accede to any move towards eliminating the production of tobacco or tobacco products. The trade unions contend that the livelihoods of about 26 million people, including six million farmers, will be directly and indirectly affected if tobacco production and sale are curtailed. Strangely this is almost exactly what the tobacco industry, heavily dominated by huge multinational interests and by those completely dependent on the growing export market, have been saying. Clearly, the massive advertising and promotional efforts of the industry – lobbying, seminars, campaigns, publications – has paid off. It isn't jobs that the trade unions are saving but the huge investments that have been made in the industry. It isn't the sustenance of Indian tobacco labour that is at issue here but the sustainability of an industry which is being forced to cough up increasingly larger amounts in injury compensation and innovative forms of taxation aimed at making the industry and its products 'safe' for human consumption elsewhere.<P>
The WHO Convention, it must be pointed out, has not been an easy one to evolve. It is a product of multilateral negotiations over many years to formulate a set of rules covering a range of tobacco-related issues with public health objectives and it is as yet under discussion. By its very nature, it cannot be uniformly applicable in its entirety to all the 191 member-states. It is meant as guidelines which suggest ways and means of ensuring a progressive reduction of tobacco use and production over a period of time. For India to refuse to even consider it, as apparently the trade unions want it to, is to condemn those engaged in tobacco production and manufacture of tobacco products to a world of long-term sickness and risk.<P>
The trouble with the kind of stand that the trade unions have taken is that it strategises itself out of reckoning. If, as the trade unions say, and quite rightly, the issue is of the millions whose livelihoods depend on the industry, then there must be an active and multi-pronged effort to introduce alternative opportunities – alternative crops which by a combination of incentives, disincentives and market adjustments can be made to be as lucrative as tobacco, newer jobs and social security to those who may lose jobs in the short term, access to skill-acquisition, and so on. And for all this the government should accept financial responsibility. In such a task there would be greater opportunity to not only mobilise workers on issues of increasingly serious concern – health and risk to life – but mount a political response to the creation of wealth at the cost of the health and lives of workers on the farm and in the factories especially of developing nations.

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