Odisha health department’s move to press the government for raising taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products is a welcome development. While the World Health Organisation (WHO) has called upon countries to increase taxes to reduce consumption of tobacco and prevent millions of deaths worldwide, the message holds special significance for Odisha—among the highest tobacco consuming states in India. Almost half the population consumes tobacco in some form or the other with smokeless tobacco like gutkha, paan, khaini accounting for over 36 per cent. The disquieting fact is, the initiation age is as low as adolescence and pre-teens.
Even as there is an alarming rise in incidence of tobacco-related diseases over 60 per cent of cancers in the state are tobacco-related. The WHO has termed tax increase as a win-win situation for public health and economy. It would not only be a deterrent to tobacco consumption but also generate substantial additional revenue. Odisha had last raised VAT on tobacco from 13.5 to 25 per cent in 2011 and calls are for raising it to 50 per cent on the lines of several other states. Even as it proposes to raise tobacco tax, the state’s earlier attempts at curbing consumption have come to a naught. Odisha was among the first states in India to impose a total ban on manufacturing, distribution and sale of gutkha and paan masala containing nicotine since January 2013. But an absolute lack of enforcement despite powers for seizure and penalty has encouraged a return of the banned products.
The government has cited legal battles at various levels and also lack of manpower as major constraints in enforcing the ban. The issue should raise further consternation as the ban has prevented tax collection on the products causing huge financial loss to the state exchequer. The cardinal duty of the government is to ensure proper coordination among the departments concerned to effectively tackle the menace for, other factors notwithstanding, the financial burden of tobacco-attributable diseases far outweighs government expenditure on healthcare.