With the total tax burden currently at 53 per cent, 19.5 per cent and 56 per cent respectively for cigarettes, beedis and smokeless tobacco, taxation in India is much lower than the level recommended by the WHO, which recommends 75 per cent of the retail price as tax. The Union Budget 2017-18 also did not address this anomaly with an effective tax increase of 6 per cent, lower than at least the 10 per cent increase witnessed in previous budgets.
S Cyril Alexander, state convenor of Tamil Nadu People’s Forum for Tobacco Control, says that a steep rise will be effective in preventing consumption among children. “Even teenagers are getting addicted to these products because they are available at a lower cost. Steep tax and pricing can help kick the habit. We must also look at all tobacco products under this ambit — including chewable pan masala, beedis, apart from cigarettes and other forms of tobacco,” he says.
According to the World Health Organisation, there must be a focus both on pricing and availability, points out A Narayanan, director, Change India. “At the moment, though awareness is present, there is no effort in the direction of curbing sale of beedis and other tobacco products that are part of the unorganised sector,” he says.
He adds that even advertising should be monitored, like how it is being done in Australia. “However, all these measures are sure to open up illegal avenues for pumping in the products from other countries like China. We do not have a corruption-free system to negate such possibilities,” he says.
An estimated 48 percent of men and 20 percent of women consume tobacco (35 per cent of the adult population overall). At least 10 lakh are dying each year from tobacco related diseases. Beedis comprise 48 percent of the tobacco market, chewing tobacco 38 percent and cigarettes 14 percent so it is evident that beedis account for a significant portion of those deaths.
Bhavna Mukhopadhyay, CEO, Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI), “At least, a 10 per cent increase in the effective excise on tobacco product has almost been a norm in the past several years and a mere 6 per cent increase was a boon for the tobacco industry and a major setback for the public health interests of our country. We hope that the honourable Finance Minister will ensure a significant increase in tobaccotaxation and decrease in the affordability of tobacco products while finalising the GST reforms.”