x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Butt out: India's government aims to extinguish bidi habit

Known as the poor man's cigarette, it is enjoyed by more than 100 million Indians. But the success of the bidi has made it a target as the government attempts to tackle health problems.

A banana seller smokes a bidi, the ‘poor man’s cigarette’.
A banana seller smokes a bidi, the ‘poor man’s cigarette’.

NEW DELHI // Ram Pyari never skips her midday ritual. She squats under a tree, trying to avoid the harsh sun and takes a long drag from a small, brown cigarette. The blue smoke line makes her smile.

"I do not care what my children say," said Ms Pyari, 56, a maid. "Or society. Or anyone. This is good for my nerves."

Ms Pyari is a bidi smoker. One of approximately 100 million in India. Now the Indian government and the World Lung Foundation want her to kick the habit - for her children's sake.

Known as the poor man's cigarette, bidis are hand-rolled. Shredded tobacco leaves are wrapped in a leaf from the temburni plant, so that the cigarette smokes more slowly - almost like a cigar. As a result, bidis deliver three times the nicotine, tar and carbon monoxide of a normal cigarette. But it is the price that most attracts smokers. Even the cheapest packet of cigarettes are no match for the bidis, which cost between two to eight rupees (Dh0.16 to Dh0.64) per pack of 20.

Bidi smoking in India is significantly higher (16 per cent among men) than cigarette smoking (10.3 per cent among men), according to a 2010 Global Adult Tobacco Survey. Even female smokers (1.9 per cent) prefer bidis to cigarettes (0.8 per cent).

Providing for this enormous market is a vast cottage industry employing an estimated 4.4 million people. While there are large bidi factories, most of the production is done by women in their homes. Nearly 225,000 children are involved in the industry which leaves workers with an array of health problems, according to the Washington-based Tobacco Free Center.

The Indian ministry of health and family welfare along with the New York-based antismoking advocacy group, the World Lung Foundation, launched an aggressive campaign in July to discourage bidi smoking.

In a series of television and radio advertisements, called "Heart-break", a tailor has a heart attack at work. As he dies vignettes showing his families fate flash on the screen. "If his father had not died of a heart attack, his son might have got a good education and a good job," says the narrator as the viewer is treated to an image of what the inside of an actual blocked artery looks like.

The advertisement has been translated into 14 Indian languages.

Coincidentally, it was Mrs Pyari's husband who got her hooked on bidis. He died 16 years ago, and smoking with her husband is one of her fondest memories, and a major reason why she continues to smoke.

Busy cleaning several homes a day, Ms Pyari has not seen the ad, nor, she said, would it deter her.

Nandita Murukutla wishes she would see reason. "Bidis are a serious threat to public health in India and it is an issue that has needed addressing," said Ms Murukutla, the director of research and evaluation with the World Lung Foundation in India.

Ms Murukutla was circumspect about the inability of the advert to reach the likes of Ms Pyari, the poor who are the greatest consumers of bidis.

"We will know the full effect of the campaign once it is evaluated upon its completion. That said initial indications are positive," she said. "We have heard anecdotal reports of how the campaign prompts one to think about the harms of bidis and fills an important gap in the tobacco control programme to date," Ms Murukutla added.

Perhaps the adverts and the accompanying social media campaign are aimed at a hipper, younger crowd. Bidi smoking is growing among young men and women in urban areas, in part because of the rustic, "Old India" quality of the bidi.

And while the legal smoking age in India is 18, many bidi sellers have no problem selling to underage children.

Gyanender Sher, 43, stocks chewing tobacco, imported and domestic cigarettes and at least five brands of bidi in his shop in New Delhi. Although he says he will not sell cigarettes to minors, he is a bit more relaxed about selling bidis to them.

"I don't sell to children. They come here to buy it for their family members," said Mr Sher. "Children cannot smoke them. They are too harsh. Bidis are for grown men only."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae