Prof. T K Thomas

Prof. T K Thomas

The day before yesterday [Sunday, 31May], the annual World No Tobacco Day was observed by the World Health Organization [WHO] and member countries. Two significant points may be pointed out. First, this year’s World No Tobacco Day coincides with the coronavirus pandemic and second, the United States, one of the major funders of WHO has quit the UN body. Incidentally, the US is home for some of the largest cigarette manufacturers in the world like Philip Morris and Altria. The theme of this year’s World No Tobacco Day is “Protecting Youth from Industry Manipulation and preventing them from Tobacco and Nicotine Use”. This may be a deviation from the usual generalized and victim-centred themes for the Day since the starting of this annual Day in 1987. The WHO has taken courage to take the bull by the horn by confronting the tobacco industry’s belligerent promotion of campaigns and ads of cigarettes and tobacco products targeting gullible sections of the society- youth and children.

WHO in this year’s flyer released worldwide, highlights how the theme has been chosen:- ”For decades the tobacco industry has deliberately employed strategic, aggressive and well-resourced tactics to attract youth to tobacco and nicotine products. Internal industry documents reveal in depth research and calculated approaches designed to attract a new generation of tobacco users from product design to marketing campaigns aimed at replacing the millions of who die each year from tobacco attributed diseases with new consumers-youth.”

In its attempt to combat the tobacco industry’s might, the WHO has explained how the counter-marketing campaign will serve to:-

*Debunk myths and expose manipulation tactics employed by the tobacco and related industries, particularly marketing tactics targeted at youth, including through the introduction of new and novel products, flavours and other attractive features;

*Equip young people with knowledge about the tobacco and related industries’ intentions and tactics to hook current and future generations on tobacco and nicotine products; and

*Empower influencers [in pop culture, on social media, in the home, or in the classrooms] to protect and defend youth and catalyse change by engaging them in the fight against Big Tobacco.

This year’s World Tobacco Day has also highlighted the correlation between the scourge of the deadly coronavirus pandemic and tobacco. As a nation we have adopted the tobacco habit itself from Europe and have also innovated new methods of use. All of them are conducive to contracting the deadly virus. Think of the methods tobacco addicts use.

In Mizoram, I have noticed that they have an extract of tobacco juice called ‘Tui bur’ which some of them used to carry with them in a small bottle. Characteristic of their sharing habit, everyone in the office used to sip from the same bottle. Smoking cigarettes, bidis, hookah and cigars are ubiquitous.

In parts of Andhra women do reverse smoking of an indigenous cigar. In Goa I had seen a tobacco tooth- paste which was very harmful according to a doctor friend who used to campaign against it.

In parts of South India, use of snuff is prevalent and I have seen the users sneezing almost wildly after inhaling it unmindful of others nearby. Chewing tobacco independently and with betel leaf and other condiments in ‘paan’ has made spitting almost a national pastime! All these habits can spread the coronavirus because they involve sharing from the same bottle, smoking, sneezing and spitting.

The WHO has come out with a statement titled ‘’ Tobacco use and COVID 19” which details some of the deleterious effects of tobacco during these times of the pandemic. According to the Statement, ”Tobacco kills more than 8 million people globally every year. More than 7 million of these deaths are from direct tobacco use and around 1.2 million are due to non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke….. A review of studies by public health experts convened by WHO on 29 April 2020 found that smokers are more likely to develop severe diseases with COVID-19, compared to non-smokers”.

It also adds that COVID-19 is an infectious disease that primarily attacks the lungs. Smoking impairs lung function making it harder for the body to fight off coronavirus and other diseases”. To encourage smokers to quit, WHO points out how “within 20 minutes of quitting, elevated heart rate and blood pressure drop. After 12 hours, the carbon monoxide level in the bloodstream drops to normal. Within 2-12 weeks, circulation improves and lung function increases. After 1-9 months, coughing and shortness of breath decrease”. WHO also recommends that smokers take immediate steps to quit smoking by using proven methods such as toll-free quit lines, mobile text messaging programmes and nicotine replacement therapies.

Because of the lockdown there was no public event or major event, seminar, discussion or campaigns to mark the World No Tobacco Day on Sunday. Even the media seem to have not given it much coverage. But there have been civil society initiatives like Deep Maan’s ‘You Tube’ programme on tobacco, dedicated to the Day. I had met him, a displaced person from Punjab living in the sprawling resettlement colony of Jahangirpuri in the 1990s as a young social activist who wanted to do something for his people. Due to sheer hard work and dedication he has built his own digital studio in his colony becoming a social entrepreneur and his video with his trade-mark humour has been seen by many.

I also saw yesterday [June 1] on You Tube a discussion to mark the No Tobacco Day organized by Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith. This is part of a month long event and the discussion was on “Engaging Young People to New Emerging Tobacco Threats” organized in Association with the National Association of Professional Social Workers in India [NAPSWI] and Nada India Foundation, as part of a Nada-NAPSWI Wellness campaign for a healthy and drug free campus.

I am highlighting this as the discussion is in tune with this year’s WHO theme relevant to young people and the participants in the discussion were all stakeholders- academics, social activists students and young people. It had the presence of the Vice Chancellor of Kashi Vidyapith Prof. T N Singh, senior academics, students, Nada India chairman Suneel Vatsyayan, NAPSWI President Prof. Sanjai Bhatt.

Kashi and Varanasi have importance as pilgrimage centres and home for the iconic Banarasi Pann and widespread tobacco use. Prof. Bansi Dhar Pandey of the Department of Social Work in his introduction detailed the Vidyapith’s journey during the last 1.5 years to make the campus tobacco-free. In order to facilitate this, on the anvil are construction of open Gyms, health inventories and guides for students targeted also from other colleges in Banaras.

Vice Chancellor Prof. T N Singh highlighted how passive consumption of tobacco is equally dangerous and the responsibility of those who do not consume tobacco to firstly protect themselves and then motivate others to quit. He added that we should not depend on the government for everything, “society creates governments; governments don’t create society’’ and encouraged everyone to play their parts.

Vatsyayan agreed with Prof. Singh to work not only with the victims of substance abuse but also the families who get affected by it. The child has a right to have access to a drug free family, educational institutions and society. That children more specifically the youth are not only the future but also the present and should be included in the process of decision making. He said, ‘’this discussion brings the experienced people and the youth of the country together and they should work together at the grassroot level as well as at the advocacy level. Youth should not be left behind at any step”.

Prof.Sanjai Bhatt pointed out how globally, substance abuse has killed more people than the pandemic COVID-19.He also said how the pandemic has left things on us , we are responsible for ourselves and our involvement depends on our integrity and willingness to show up.

Student Vijeta Singh stated that the coronavirus lockdown ensured little or no access to substances like tobacco alcohol and other drugs to the population. Student Ginja Singh was against celebrity sponsored products, sale near schools and colleges and proposed counselling sessions as well as awareness drives. Another student Navjeet pointed out how the university was already organizing health training workshops, martial art classes and Yoga workshops to create a healthy campus. Riya Thapliyal, Youth Catalyst, Nada India in her presentation showed how the organization and the network train young people to become health advocates and create safe and healthy spaces around them by combating the risk factors of Non Communicable Diseases like drug use, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity. Dr. Vrinda Pahuja of Asian Medical Students’ Association, India discussed facts and figures about tobacco consumption and its impact, especially on children. She also elaborated on the campaign run in association with Nada India every Tuesday, an effort to prevent passive smoking in children.

During this pandemic health has taken centre-stage and strategies of meaningful engagement of students and young people need to be scaled up to combat the threat posed by the tobacco industry.


The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.