How Tobacco Victims are Downing the Shutters of the Industry that sold them Cancer

Krishnaraj Rao for BeyondHeadlines

Mumbai : Amidst all the dust and tumult of the anti-corruption movement that raged throughout the country, a massive victory for the people of India has quietly gone unnoticed. People may be wondering why state after state is banning Gutka in 2012. Why is the Political establishment slamming its doors in the face of the massively influential and moneyed  tobacco lobby? While the magnitude of the havoc caused by tobacco has been a matter of public record for many decades, it was dimly understood by the decision-makers until the victims of tobacco themselves started confronting them with the grim reality.

India is struck by a disaster of tsunami or earthquake proportions every single day. Over 3000 persons (mainly middle age) die on a daily basis. Strangely, nobody in the administration seemed to care until March 2012. Tobacco users are hugely prone to getting cancer, respiratory illness, heart attack, stroke etc. Ten lakh smokers and tobacco-chewers die every year from these illnesses in India – 50 times more than non-tobacco users. About one-third of India’s population is hooked to tobacco. Of India’s 42 crore tobacco addicts, only about 28 crore are adults. About 14 crore are aged below 18 years, and they typically pick up the tobacco habit in the 6th or 7th standard.


The Voice of Tobacco Victims (VOTV) has been a game-changer in pushing for a ban on chewable tobacco products. On 31st May, 2008, a small group of 10 cancer patients met with oncologists and cancer researchers at Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital and said, “This is what tobacco did to us, we now want to save others!” This meeting was widely reported.

The crusading tobacco victims personally appeared before the state assemblies of six states in  2011-12, viz. Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Five of these six states went on to ban Gutka and chewable tobacco products and all those hiked Taxes on tobacco products. VoTV members (as the crusading tobacco victims became known), backed by 17 leading cancer specialists in various states, have been cornering chief ministers, health ministers and other decision-makers to sign pledges to eradicate Gutka, Khaini etc. Following their efforts, the Gutka ban has been implemented by 15 states so far (the ban in UP and Uttarakhand will come into effect every soon).

VOTV has brought India to the front-lines in the war on cancer-causing tobacco, and is showing advocacy gurus worldwide the way to fight the war against cancer. VOTV will not allow victims like Satish Pednekar, Deepak Kumar and Shafique Shaikh (the lead actor in Malegaon Ka Superman) to become faceless statistics; it compels administrations and the public to remember that they are unique persons like you and I, with wives and children who love them. The campaign, spearheaded by Healis-Sekhsaria Institute of Public Health and Tata Memorial Hospital shows people in the administration the face of their voters and tax-payers, who are suffering due to their failure to ban tobacco and its products.

The so-called war on cancer is largely a war on promotion and sale of carcinogenic tobacco products. For decades, this war has been fought with dry statistics. NGOs, researchers and scientists have been the face of this war, while victims were used for generating statistics. And so, the profiteering tobacco companies has had it easy, hiding behind “lies, damned lies and statistics” about employment and tax revenue given by tobacco, and of course, their lofty CSR initiatives. No longer! Victims of very sort of tobacco usage will speak up, and rebut all the lies that are being spread by the profiteering tobacco industry. Having proven itself in India, the VOTV movement has spread to US, Russia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where victims are now beginning to speak up.

In the world of public health advocacy, India has lit up a lamp, which now spread across the globe.



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