x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

India's attempts to ban chewing tobacco stymied by black market

Uneven enforcement by states and a thriving black market are thwarting attempts to ban 'gutka', which is more popular than cigarettes and is consumed by an estimated 65 million Indians, including children.

A vendor arranges sachets of gutka at his roadside stall in Kolkata. Ten Indian states have banned the popular chewing tobacco made of crushed betel nut, nicotine and laced with thousands of chemicals.
A vendor arranges sachets of gutka at his roadside stall in Kolkata. Ten Indian states have banned the popular chewing tobacco made of crushed betel nut, nicotine and laced with thousands of chemicals.

NEW DELHI // India's efforts to ban the sale of chewing tobacco have been stymied by uneven enforcement by states and a thriving black market.

Known as gutka in Hindi, chewing tobacco is more popular than cigarettes and is consumed by an estimated 65 million Indians, including many children, according to India's food and health ministry.

India banned the sale of gutka in 2001 but it is up to individual states to enforce the ban.

So far, 14 of the 28 Indian States have enforced the ban on its sale with five more considering the doing the same.

Last week, the north-east Indian state of Mizoram became the latest state to impose the ban.

Delhi, meanwhile, enforced the ban in September.

In the capital, Rakesh Kashyap, 22, runs a tobacco shop in Defence Colony and hides a stash of gutka in a drawer under the main table where other products, including cigarettes are on display.

Autorickshaw and taxi drivers are the biggest customers of gutka at his stand.

"It helps them to get through their long shifts," said Mr Kashyap.

Store owners like Mr Kashyap and the companies that produce chewing tobacco are working to find ways around the ban. Retailers now sell the chewing tobacco and its other contents - known as paan masala - separately.

In some cases, manufacturers advertise that their product is tobacco-free, when it is not.

"Companies are taking the tobacco out of paan masala, so people who want to continue to use gutka buy the paan masala and the tobacco separately and we mix it for them," said Mr Kashyap.

The new mix costs four rupees (Dh0.27) — four times the price of chewing tobacco and equal to the price of a single cigarette.

"The ingredients are not banned and they available locally," Sanjay Bechan, executive director of the Smokeless Tobacco Federation, which represents smokeless tobacco companies that produce gutka.

"The government has not banned the cultivation of tobacco, areca nut, or catechu leaf. A shopkeeper can still mix and sell them, this is permitted under law." Mr Bechan warned that without proper manufacturing facilities, the gutka market will remain flush with unregulated, possibly dangerous gutka mixtures.

He also warned that the ban could create space for organised crime to being manufacturing the product. "The ban is not the solution, you're only replacing manufacturers with a mafia," said Mr Bechan.

It is estimated the gutka ban will lead to 1.5 to 2 billion rupees in losses to the smokeless tobacco industry.

Mr Kumar confirmed that the supply of gutka has not declined in the market.

He did say that there is increasingly "a black market" for the pre-mixed packs.

They are sold at triple their normal retail prices and are often smuggled from nearby states whether or not the ban was in place.

Food and Drug Administration officials in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, some of the first states to impose the ban, complained this month that gutka manufactured in the state of Uttar Pradesh - where the ban was imposed in April - are still being found in their states.

Sanjay Kumar, 30, a taxi driver in New Delhi said many of his friends used to consume up to 20 packets of gutka a day.

"It is cheap, so they don't have to restrain themselves on how much they use. If they smoke, they can only afford four or five cigarettes a day," he said. "This ban hits the common man hardest, rich people can afford cigarettes."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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