GUWAHATI, May 14: The Indian market of smoked tobacco is domited by bidis, which outsell cigarettes by 8:1. While GST rates of different products are being filized, the burning question is whether 8,500 people must die every year to keep employment of 6,907 bidi workers in the state?
It is widely known that bidi use is harmful to health, however, bidi has relatively escaped regulatory controls, especially taxes, on the plea that lakhs of bidi workers’ livelihood is at stake. Sanjay Seth, a Trustee of Sambandh Health Foundation, an organization which works in tobacco control, said that “taxation is the most effective way to reduce consumption but bidi has traditiolly had very low taxes on the plea that livelihood of thousands of bidi workers is at stake. In the GST regime moves are afoot to put bidi in the lower 18 per cent slab as compared to the other forms of tobacco being put in the highest tax rate of 28 per cent where cess is also applicable,” a press release said.
Dr Amal Kataki, Director of Dr B. Borooah Cancer Institute & VoTV (Voice of Tobacco Victims) patron, said that in Assam this argument does not work as the number of people who die from bidi every year is more than those employed by the bidi industry. He added that everyday people are seeing cancers caused by bidi usage which is destroying families and families. This does not justify any sort of encouragement to bidi usage. He said that bidis are as dangerous as cigarettes and should equally be treated as a demerit or sin good under GST.
As per the study by ndi et al (2014) published in British Medical Jourl, the number of bidi workers in Assam was only 6907 full-time (FT) workers. As per employment data from the Planning Commission for that year, this is only 0.10% of the total employment in the state which belies the importance of this product as a livelihood in Assam.
Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, Professor Surgical Oncology at Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai and a leading activist on tobacco control said that the employment argument does not hold compared to the death and distress bidi causes. Bidi causes 5.8 lakh deaths per annum in India and based on number of bidi smokers in Assam it is estimated that more than 8,500 people die because of bidi.
He added: “There’s a misconception bidi industry is unorganized sector and employs a large number of people. The bidi sector is well-organized unorganized sector. In reality the bidi workers are victims of the bidi industry.”
A 2010 study of bidi rollers in one of the bidi manufacturing states found that more than 70 per cent of the workers suffered from eye, gastrointestil and nervous problems while more than half suffered from respiratory problems.
Dr Kataki said, “I am sure our Fince Minister wants to see healthier Assam and will strongly support to tax bidi in the demerit category.”
While the VAT from tobacco earned in the state was Rs 138 crores in 2011-12, the healthcare costs due to tobacco use in Assam was Rs 541 crores as per the study released by Ministry of Health & Family Welfare.
As per the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS), in Assam more than 85 lakh people consume tobacco (19.2 lakh cigarette users, 11.5 lakh bidi users, 71.3 lakh smokeless tobacco users). Assam witnesses 34,000 deaths every year due to all tobacco usage.