Govt finances tobacco majors, admits to double interests
There's some satisfaction in saying the truth out loud. I realised this the day after I filed this report.
In one simple line, this is the story - the government has huge investments in the tobacco companies. And I mean, huge.
When I first stumbled upon the documents over a cup of coffee at Barista, I kept counting the number of zeros just to be sure - nearly a hundred crores of shares. We had accessed an RTI proof that showed that Life Insurance Corporation of India had invested in companies like ITC, VST Industries and the DS group. These are big companies that depend primarily on tobacco for profits. When I saw the figures, let's just say my coffee didn't interest me any longer.
A little more digging up and... there was more to dig. ITC's own shareholder report of 2011 showed that six of its proud top 10 shareholders in 2011 were government agencies and those were LIC, New India Insurance, UTI, General Insurance Corporation of India, the Oriental Insurance Company and National Insurance Company Ltd.
So, what's the big deal?
The deal is that there are a million of us who die every year from using the products that these very companies produce. And, the numbers may only be understated.
India is the oral cancer capital of the world. Around 80 per cent of these are due to Gutka. DS Group is one of the big gutka guys.
About 14 per cent of the Indian adults smoke. Around 60 per cent of them are so addicted that they have to have tobacco within the first half hour of waking up. ITC and VST industries have been at their service since long.
Maximum lung cancer cases in the country, countless heart disease and TB cases are due to tobacco use, mostly smoking. Maximum patients are in the band of the most productive, the 30-40 age group. Our regional cancer centres are burgeoning with them. Women, college students, even our kids are addicted. A study found that on an average, a 6th standard kid today is using more tobacco, than an 8th std student. Gutka packets, which contain more than 5000 harmful chemicals, including tar, sell for a cheap rupee or two.
So the question is, why is our government investing in such companies whose products are, simply put, killing us?
Interestingly, both ITC and LIC had similar responses to that question.
"It will be erroneous to call us a tobacco company, we are so much more," ITC said.
LIC only reminded us that ITC is also into paper packaging and agri-business etc.
Ah! But they think alike!
No wonder then that there aren't strong enough pack warnings on cigarette packs in the country.
No wonder then, that the onscreen smoking regulations were stalled to be changed as soon as they were notified.
No wonder then that the food safety law on gutka ban is still struggling to make it to all states.
No wonder then, our children still get access to tobacco products outside their schools.
Arguing innocence, unfortunately for our government, cannot take away the overwhelming public heath evidence that tobacco kills! Investing in tobacco companies only goes to show how deep their friendship-of-sorts is. A friendship that's costing us a million lives every year.
The health minister admitted to this double play. "The health ministry is against any support to these areas but there are other ministries who like to mobilise the resources. They have their own interests; of course in the interest of the country also...only... There is a double interest. On one side, you are mobilising the resources through these units and on other side there is a bad impact on the health."
That, by the way, was longest ever that Ghulam Nabi Azad has given me an interview.
But is it enough? I wonder.
Write to me what you think of it, what you think the governmentt should or should not do. Post your comments here or to email@example.com.
More about ShaliniWas the kid lost in science books at school, practically lived in the science labs at high school but that love affair diverted to mass media studies during graduation. When you have a combination like that, there plops a health journalist. And after 6 years of work now, she still feels she hasn't talked enough about YOUR health - all that you want to know & need to know on pandemics, major public health concerns (tobacco products must be banned!), new miracle medicines & treatments on the horizon to drugs that should banned here & now…And more importantly, about the people behind these stories. The real reasons, real inspirations. Constantly complains that not everything can be said in a minute & a half. Hence this blog – takes you behind the scenes, beyond the bytes. She loves to cook a good story but once off the screen, can’t cook a thing in the kitchen to save her life. Finds it equally impossible to keep a cupboard/desktop tidy. Is a known bookworm, blog-worm (if that’s a word) & a chai freak!
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