CHENNAI: It’s been eight years since gutkha and paan masala were banned in Tamil Nadu. But that doesn’t mean you can’t buy them anymore. Just ask the roadside shopkeeper, and there’s a good chance he’ll hand you these tobacco and nicotine products.
The black market is well oiled. Wholesalers, retailers, middlemen, transporters and informers line their pockets as these products move along the supply chain; and a section of law enforcement officers allegedly gets paid to ensure the show runs unhindered.
As for consumers, they’re glad to still get their fix, however high the price. Even amid the lockdown, when ‘essentials’ were hard to come by, tobacco (both smoking and chewable) users said it was easy to get such products, and about two-thirds of them said they were available every day. This was revealed in a research paper titled ‘Tobacco Use and Quitting Behaviour During Covid-19 Lockdown’, based on a study at the Tobacco Cessation Clinic at the Cancer Institute, Chennai.
Express has found many outlets in Chennai selling gutkha and paan masala. These products aren’t on display, but are readily brought to the fore on demand from consumers. Within just 10 minutes, three customers were spotted buying gutkha products at an outlet in Saidapet. When asked for ‘Cool Lip’, a banned product, the seller quoted Rs 60 (three times the MRP), but was willing to offer a Rs 10 discount.
On the other hand, there are outlets that aren’t in the business due to the fear of prosecution. A couple of owners of petty shops near Mount Road said they wouldn’t risk sabotaging their livelihood to sell a couple of products. “We have other products that fetch us money. Banned products are still sold because people pay so much for them,” one said.
Law enforcement agencies and the Food Safety department, meanwhile, are scrambling for ways to crack down on the menace. Most gutkha and paan masala consumers are from low-income groups, and work as auto drivers, and truck and bus drivers; and many are alcoholics and have psychiatric conditions, sources in the healthcare industry and police department said. Youngsters are but a cluster that experiments with various forms of tobacco.
Dr Delfin Lovelina Francis, associate professor at the Tagore Dental College and Hospital, Chennai, said people who do monotonous jobs get into the habit of consuming tobacco, assuming it would help beat the boredom. “Many of them aren’t even aware that chewable tobacco too causes cancer,” explained Delfin, who has educated Malayali tribes, Irula tribes, tea plantation workers, silk thread weavers, and port workers on the hazards of tobacco products.
‘It’s possible to enforce the ban’
According to the Enforcement Directorate, illegal manufacture and sale of gutkha products in Tamil Nadu yielded Rs 639.40 crore between 2013 and 2016. Before the ban was enforced in 2013, the market size was estimated at about Rs 100 crore per year, with 30 per cent of it going to the State coffers as taxes, said Tamil Nadu Vanigar Sangam Peramaippu leader AM Vikramaraja.
Accusing a section of law enforcement officers at the ground level for being hand in glove with the smugglers, he said the ban can be enforced properly within 24 hours, provided the same intention trickles down to the last officer.
He urged the Food Safety department to go easy on small retailers and take strict action against wholesalers. Vikaramaraja further said merchant associations refused to respond to lobbying by major brands in the State after the ban was imposed.
Head of the Psycho Oncology Department and Resource Centre for Tobacco Control at the Cancer Institute, Chennai, Dr V Surendran said the brands go to any extent to promote their products. “For instance, a child that sees a brand logo on cigarette packet and book would think both are good,” he pointed out.
Brands and places of manufacture
1. Hans - Haryana & New Delhi
2. Cool Lip - Punjab & packed in Haryana
3. Swagat - New Delhi
4. Remo - Bengaluru
Source: A research paper published in Indian Journal of Cancer in 2016
Rs 639.40 crore yielded from illegal manufacture and sale of gutkha products in TN from 2013-16, as per Enforcement Directorate
Rs 100 crore estimated market size per year before the ban; 30% of it went to the State govt as taxes, says TN Vanigar Sangam Peramaippu leader AM Vikramaraja
Rs 6.04 crore value of gutkha products seized in TN in a week between July and August
What the Food Safety department has done
A quick glance at the action taken against the sale of gutkha in the State
17.11 lakh shops inspected from 2013 to June 2021
1,17,870 shops sealed
800 tonnes of gutkha & paan masala products worth Rs 29 crore seized
597 criminal cases filed for selling mis-branded and unsafe products
90 cases adjudged and fines of Rs 14.63 lakh imposed
96 civil cases filed, 87 adjudged, and Rs 37.33 lakh fines slapped
Forming district-level committees chaired by Collectors
Closely collaborating with law enforcement agencies
Making traders pledge not to sell products that pose health hazards
Do bans actually have the opposite effect?
People are motivated to rebel against forced decisions, as per American psychologist Jack Brehm’s ‘reactance theory’, which was introduced in 1966. Bans don’t solve behavioural problems, so the demand for banned products will remain, Biju Dominic, CEO of Final Mile Consulting, points out. “When we ban any intoxicant, the problem goes below the surface,” he explains, adding that the issue then becomes tougher for the government to handle.
Indicating that the issue needs to be tackled as a public health concern and not as a criminal offence, he says, “From a behavioural change angle, the significant result of bans is that they absolve the individual of the responsibility of fighting it and hands it over to law enforcement agencies.” Final Mile Consulting focuses on human behaviour change
Gutkha and paan masala are banned, but the black market is thriving as consumers are willing to pay hefty amounts to get their dose of tobacco and nicotine. Law enforcement officers play a key role in keeping the supply alive