Fighting for India's health

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Fighting for India’s health

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara


SuperFantastic under a Creative Commons Licence

About twenty years ago you couldn’t buy imported cigarettes in India. Then I used to buy duty-free cigarettes for my friends who loved Dunhill, Benson & Hedges or Marlboro. Now I wish I hadn’t.

I stopped in 1984, when I met a 21-year-old adivasi boy. His arteries had become hard and the doctors had to amputate his leg. My husband Stan carried him into the operating theatre and we both cried. A little later, the boy lost his second leg and then he killed himself.

That sounds very unusual. But we saw many adivasis who had amputations because of tobacco. I’m not sure why. Maybe tobacco is more lethal if you have a malnourished body and this starts a very bad reaction.

In 1991, I met David Cohen, co-author of an anti-tobacco book called Giant Killers. David and others fought big legal battles against the tobacco lobby in the US. Everyone could see how much damage tobacco was doing – so many deaths from cancer, lung damage and very big health costs. And all to make more money for the tobacco industry. The problem was that no-one wanted to listen, not the government, the industry, or people who use tobacco.

Thirty years later, I am happy to see a similar battle in India. The Institute of Public Health (IPH), started by Doctors Roopa and Narayanan Devadasan, is fighting for India’s health. The anti-tobacco campaign is one of their many fights. And they already have some good results.

IPH are fighting for laws to stop the tobacco industry having influence on public-health policies.

IPH protested because the government were part of a public event that one of the big tobacco companies was organising. They were pleased that the Ministry of Finance reacted to their protest. The Ministry told media people who phoned them that the minister was NOT going to participate in the event. And the event website took the minister’s name off the guest list. This is a small victory, but even small things lead to change.

Also, IPH discovered that the World Bank was giving money for the tobacco event and helping groups from the governments of Asia Pacific countries to come to it. IPH sent an email to the World Bank President to say why this was wrong. They reminded them that the World Bank had a policy of not supporting the tobacco industry. Surprisingly, World Bank officials thanked them for reminding them of this. They then told IPH that have decided to not give money or technical support to the event. And the event website removed the name of the World Bank as a sponsor.

IPH then contacted other groups that were going. And the South East Asia Tobacco Control Alliance asked regional leaders not to go. The Philippines said they will not participate.

The best thing was when the Secretariat of the UN treaty (the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control) decided to show this as a good example of civil society action in India to stop tobacco industry interference.

The team is very happy. In the end, they want to change the laws and policies. But every little fight they win is very important. It brings us all closer to winning the war to end the terrible control of tobacco companies over human lives.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).