Tobacco trance? Sunita Tomar’s cancer death a wake-up call

safe_imageSunita Tomar, the face of India’s anti-tobacco campaign, lost her battle against oral cancer, passing away at the age of 28 in her hometown Bhind in Madhya Pradesh. Sunita had been a regular tobacco chewer, and her cancer was detected only in the last stages. She had featured in a video issued by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, titled ‘Sunita’, which showed the devastating effects of smokeless tobacco. She was operated upon last year, a clipping of which occurs in the add, to remove the tumour but a relapse occurred, which eventually caused her death.

Even in the last weeks of her life, she wrote to the government, urging it to take necessary steps to spread awareness about the harmful effects of tobacco use and stop its consumption to save innocent lives.  In her letter to the Prime Minister, she expressed anguish over MP D.P. Gandhi’s irresponsible statements that there were no Indian studies linking tobacco use to cancer. As the head of the Parliamentary Committee on Subordinate Legislation, he wrote to the Health Ministry, asking for notification on bigger tobacco pack warnings to be kept in abeyance since there was no Indian survey report to prove that tobacco consumption leads to cancer. He said that “we have to study the Indian context, not just rely on foreign studies, as four crore people in states like Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh are dependent on bidi-making through Tendupatta”.

His views were ridiculed by the medical community and civil society organizations who have been working towards spreading awareness about tobacco related diseases. India is a high risk country for cancer, and various studies show that three of five cancer deaths are associated with tobacco consumption in India, with the death toll is likely to go up to 1.2 million by 2035.

The change in the packaging, which is to show graphic warnings on 85% (up from 40%) of the packaging, have been held back for the time being, in a major blow to the anti tobacco lobby. The World Health Organisation has been in favour of increasing the size of these stark images. In a low and middle income country like India, changing the packaging to include the graphic warnings is expected to increase consumer awareness and bring about desired attitude change.

The need of the hour is for the government to take a strong stand against the tobacco lobby, and implement deterrent measures such as high taxation on tobacco products, ban on their advertising, and change in packaging which shows graphic images to dissuade buyers. But the government response has remained lukewarm, at least for now. Whether the tobacco lobbies have won over the government or whether this change will occur; only time shall tell.

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