In May 2013, the Tamil Nadu government, after a round or litigations and setbacks, successfully managed to ban all forms of chewable tobacco products, after invoking relevant sections of Food Safety and Standards Act. As expected, a series of raids, both by the police and the Chennai Corporation health officials followed and several tonnes of banned products were seized. Soon however, and contrary to the aim of the ban, the availability, sales and consumption of pan masala, khaini and gutka in the state have only gone up. Moreover, traders, both wholesale and retail, are reportedly making more profit by clandestinely dealing with the product in the market.
A reality check across Chennai reveals that almost all petty shops in the city are selling these products, albeit secretly. What used to be sold for Rs.5 a pack earlier, is now being sold at Rs.15 per pack. It has been reliably learnt that there has been only a marginal increase in the cost of production.
The chewable tobacco market in India is estimated to be Rs.25,000 crore and among users, about 75 percent prefer chewable tobacco, while the remaining 25 per cent prefer cigarettes. “It is multi-billion dollar industry, with many prominent groups foraying into the field and rolling out pan masala products. Only a handful of states have banned these products, but nowhere has the ban been effective. Truckloads of products are being brought to the state on a daily basis,” a senior police official told DT Next.
Most of the production companies are based in the eastern belt of India, especially Gujarat. The powerful pan masala traders have a well-networked distribution system, even in states that have banned these products and they manage to push their products to the wholesalers in these states. “The traders who had been dealing with these products continue to do so, even after the ban. The profit margin has gone up by several hundred fold and they do not mind the risk involved,” the official added.
Sources say the attitude of both the government health department officials and police is helping the trade flourish in Tamil Nadu. The Chennai City Commissioner of Police had flagged this issue in a letter to the Home Secretary recently, seeking action against officials who had been working hand- in- glove with the pan masala network in Chennai.
“Shockingly, there is a lack of proper monitoring at the entry check posts in the state to prevent smuggling of banned tobacco products. Most of the consignments are coming byroad and an effective screening could stop most of the consignment at the border itself. But it is never done for obvious reasons,” another police official said.
Money and muscle:
North Chennai has been a hub of this banned tobacco market. Godowns located in the narrow streets here get the supply from places like Ahmedabad and there are distribution agents who pick up the consignment from these godowns and deliver the products to numerous petty shops in the city. “They come and deliver right here at the shop and no credit is allowed. We get Rs 3 to 5 per packet sold at our shop. There were so many brands available earlier, but now the number of brands has come down,” a petty shop owner said.
There is a reduction in the number of products on offer in Chennai market, indicating that only larger players, with a solid network and money power to ‘purchase’ the enforcement system are thriving. “In most cases, the policemen come to us and tell us that there will be raids to check for banned tobacco products on a specific date. They warn us to be careful. We shift the stock from the shops for two or three days and restart after the ‘raids’,” another petty shop owner said.
Many studies have suggested harmful effects of chewing tobacco and pan masala as they may contain carcinogens (agents that can cause cancer). Sources say most of the smaller production houses do not bother about the contents of their product, even if they contain highly harmful magnesium carbonate.
“In India, the market share for premium pan masala is only about 12 per cent; the rest are low quality products. Most often, these products pass quality testing standards, but no one knows what they really use in their products,” another senior official said.
CHEW ON THAT
State banned use of all forms of chewable tobacco and pan masala in May 2013.
3,000 cases booked in 2016 by Chennai city police against illegal traders.
Post-ban, going rate for Rs. 2 and 5 packs have now increased to Rs 15 per pack.
Traders say the rates vary according to the intensity of the raid or lack of it.
Rs 25,000 crore is size of chewable tobacco industry in India.
75% of total tobacco use in the country is in the form of chewable tobacco.
Smoking claims the remaining 25 per cent.
Only 12 per cent of the market belongs to the premium pan masala products.
88% belong to smaller, unorganised players, with little or no quality assurance.
Even multi-national tobacco companies have considerable stakes in Indian pan masala market.
Main supply to Chennai come from manufacturing centres in places like Ahmedabad.
No checking at check posts, smuggling flourishes through road routes.
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