The recently released 2016-2017 Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) report shows a remarkable reduction of tobacco consumption from 34.6% in 2009-10 to 28.6% in 2016-17. As a result there are over 8 million fewer tobacco users today than there were just seven years ago despite the growth in the Indian population.
The most encouraging news is the decreased use of tobacco among the youth. The prevalence of tobacco use among Indians aged 15 to 24 fell by 33 percent, from 18.4 percent to 12.4 percent. Among youth aged 15 to 17, tobacco use fell by 54 percent. All this confirms that India’s package of public health laws are working to reduce tobacco use and save lives.
Actions adopted by the Indian Government
Since 2010, India’s leaders have taken a series of strong actions at both the national and state level to curb the country’s enormous tobacco epidemic, which claims one million lives each year. These actions include large, graphic warning labels that cover 85 percent of tobacco products. India’s warnings are among the largest in the world, showing that graphic warnings depicting the deadly consequences of tobacco use work to help current users quit and prevent people from starting to use tobacco.
Although India’s long battle to put graphic warnings on tobacco products has been fought by tobacco companies at every step, and is still being challenged by the tobacco industry in court in Karnataka, this policy has had a profound effect on smokers’ attitudes. Tobacco warnings on packs encouraged adults to quit cigarette which increased from 38% to 61.9% in 2016-2017.
India has also increased tobacco taxes at the state level and many states have banned gutka, a popular, but deadly form of smokeless tobacco. India’s latest data show that smokeless tobacco use has declined by 24 percent – a historic decrease that will save many lives in a country known as the oral cancer capital of the world.
Ongoing Effort by Indian Government
Despite these historic strides, there are still 267 million tobacco users in India. There are 199 million smokeless tobacco users, 72 million bidi smokers and 32 million dual users. The three most commonly used tobacco products in India are khaini (a form of smokeless tobacco), bidis and gutka – making an emphasis on bidis and smokeless tobacco a high priority.
To further reduce tobacco-related death and disease in India, the government must strengthen its implementation of its existing tobacco control measures, as called for the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), with particular focus on policies meant to reduce the use of bidis and smokeless tobacco products. These measures include smoke-free public places, increased tobacco taxes, warning labels on tobacco products, effective mass media campaigns and restrictions on tobacco advertising.
This week, the Indian government took an important step and announced that it will tax cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and bidis at the highest rate of 28 percent under a new Goods and Services Tax (GST) structure. The government must make sure that none of these products are exempted and stand strong against the tobacco industry appeals and lobbying that will start immediately to water down the decision.