Environment Health

Tobacco and Its Many Contexts.

Dr. Akanksha Jaiswal

If you were fortunate enough to watch Indian television in the 80s 90s, or even the early 2000s, you might recognize this ad.


Complete with a social message, this ad quickly attained an iconic status, so much so that every kid knew its tagline. This was at a time celebrity backed ads were being used by the tobacco industry – now classified in this Health Ministry report as Phase 1 of tobacco marketing in India.

Aggressive and clever advertising tactics helped the tobacco industry thrive in our country – the latest in their arsenal is handing out free cigarettes to young people in bars and nightclubs,  in direct violation of the ban on tobacco advertising.  Companies know that the youth are an important buyer segment for them – it’s a well known fact that young adults and adolescents are more likely to try smoking and become lifelong nicotine addicts .

The result? About 26.7 crore (or 267 million) people ages 15 and above in India use tobacco (smoking or smokeless) according to the ministry’s latest estimate. We have the highest number of smokeless tobacco users in the world. Oral cancer is among the most common types of cancers in India and tobacco use kills about 1 million people each year.

Besides the advertising, myths and misinformation have also helped create tobacco’s unique stronghold on our society since its introduction to India in the 1600s. Some of them warrant discussion. Shall we?

So, what if I smoke? It only affects me – Nope, tobacco use always has ripple effects. Adults set an example for children, and youngsters influence their friends and younger siblings when they use tobacco in any form. This is important because young adults and adolescents are more likely to try smoking and become lifelong addicts to the nicotine in tobacco.

Smoking with people around? Non-smokers inhale that smoke (whether its a cigarette, bidi, cigar, or a hookah) and get exposed to toxic chemicals. Its called second hand smoking.

Smoking with no people around?  Still doesn’t help.  Non-smokers come in contact with the residue from tobacco smoke that settles on a smoker’s body and clothes, indoor objects and surfaces as dust. The residue has carcinogens that non-smokers keep getting exposed to for months after tobacco has been smoked. These carcinogens can cause lung cancer and lung infections in children and that is just the start of the list of health effects.

Smoking under a cave? The waste generated from discarded cigarette butts pollute land and groundwater with leached toxic chemicals. These chemicals go on to persist in treated wastewater, circling back to smokers and non smokers alike.


Tobacco is good for teeth and toothaches – Anything that contains tobacco is harmful for the mouth. Mishri, gul , lal dant manjans, some toothpastes, pan masalas, gutka, khaini cause tooth decay and gums to recede. Pan masala, gutka and khaini also have areca nut, a known carcinogen (Think Oral Cancer again.)


Tobacco has led to economic improvements for farmers and people employed – The tobacco industry positions itself as an answer to social and economic inequalities in the country. Thankfully, researchers are working to disprove that claim. “At the Crossroads of Life and Livelihood” , a recent report by Voluntary health association of India describes how tobacco farmers , bidi rollers and tendu leaf pluckers are trapped in a never ending cycle of of poverty and exploitation .

Is growing tobacco making farmers richer? Only large scale farmers. Tobacco plants need pesticides, long hours of labour and leave the soil in poorer quality.  Contact with tobacco plants exposes farmers and their family members , including pregnant women and children to nicotine poisoning and many diseases.  Small farmers, who form the majority in India are unaware of the high financial, physical and health costs of growing tobacco. Left with little negotiation power, they don’t get the compensation they deserve and suffer with poor health , low productivity and financial debt.


And the other workers? A majority of the workforce manufacturing tobacco products is made up of women and children, who are exposed to poor working conditions, low pay, and respiratory diseases. Poor health is a burden on anyone’s finances and lowers human productivity.

Tobacco use and production is a complex issue, especially in India. We can start solving it by becoming more aware.



Here’s more about the workings of the tobacco industry if you are interested! :


— Akanksha Jaiswal is a General Dentist and practiced for a few years in India before training as a Public Health Professional at Columbia University. She is passionate about improving Public Health Literacy in India, and founded Sehat Funde to make accurate and health information available to people. 

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