CHENNAI: Don’t smoke in front of my shop,” warned Santhosh (37), a petty shop owner at Guindy bus stand as he handed over a cigarette to a customer. The customer silently nodded and walked a few steps further towards a closed shop at a rear end of the bus stand. Instead of the petty shop, smokers now gather around other nearby shops that are closed.
This difference of a few feet is the result of a strong anti-tobacco order the Madras High Court issued last week and the subsequent raids by a host of departments.
The rule-book bans smoking in public places and selling of tobacco products near certain institutions like schools and temples. But the rule had been almost forgotten and people smoking in public places do not even need to feel guilty, let alone being fined for the act.
This is likely to change after the High Court’s directive last week. But just a few days after the raids, City Express found that shops, even those close to schools sold cigarettes and people continued to smoke in public places.
“Previously, they were all scattered and now they are all gathered at a place for their puff. I don’t see any other difference,” said Kalaiarasi (27), a commuter at Guindy. When S Raghu, a habitual smoker, asked for five cigarattes from Balaji Store located next to Sivasakthi Matric School at Velachery, he quickly got what he wanted.
“Police haven’t raided my shop yet. Even then, they won’t be able to keep track after the first raid. Until then I will keep selling it,” said S Ramaswamy, the shop owner.
“The restrictions on tobacco is appreciable. But it will take time to change,” pointed out Raghu when asked about the recent High Court directive and if he was aware of it.
But for most petty shopkeepers, tobacco products held the key to their business and a ban on sales would hit them hard financially. “A tobacco sachet (chewing tobacco) is just Rs 2. Even if I sell 30-40 sachets a day, I don’t get much. But I have lost customers,” said Muthu Vel (48), another shop owner.
He says a buyer who buys the tobacco packet, would end up buying a few other stuff from the shop, which helps the business. He says he had to throw away tobacco packets when he heard of police teams raiding shops in the area.
“Big companies are producing tobacco. Government does not do anything to them. We are just selling it and they fine us around Rs 100, ” rued Muthu Vel.
Just a few metres away, three people were smoking in front of a shop opposite Guru Nanal School, either unaware or just blatantly flouting the rules. After all, there was none to catch or fine them.
“Who said smoking in public is prohibited in Chennai? I smoke on streets only. I even allow my customers to smoke in my auto,” said Chandrasekar (39), an auto driver. He is just one of the many in the city who are not even aware of the restrictions on smoking and selling tobacco in the city.
Chandrasekar’s statement only highlights the need to have frequent, consistent checks and surprise raids to make Chennai’s air free from tobacco.