New Delhi: Chewing tobacco, like gutka and paan masala, has been included among banned "food products" in the government`s new food safety guidelines. The move has been welcomed by health activists as increasing incidence of oral cancer is being reported in the country, with the 2010 figure at more than 70,000.
Coming soon after the ban on the usage of plastic pouches to package chewing tobacco and pan masala, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) under the health ministry issued a notification prohibiting use of tobacco as an ingredient in any food product.
The food safety notification which was announced and enforced early August says: "Product not to contain any substance which may be injurious to health. Tobacco and nicotine shall not be used as ingredients in any food product."
Clearing the air about terming tobacco as a "food product", FSSAI director V.N. Gaur said that chewing tobacco, like gutka or paan masala, can be called a "food" because it is consumed like any other food product.
"It (tobacco product) is a food product. Anything that is consumed is called food and anything that is food and contains nicotine or tobacco must be banned," Gaur said.
That gutka and paan masala can be termed as food product was also affirmed by the Supreme Court. In the Ghodawat Paan Masala case, the apex court said: "Since paan masala, gutka or supari are eaten for taste and nourishment, they are all food within the meaning of Section 2(v) of the Act."
Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad Friday informed parliament that 70,261 people were detected with cancer of mouth, tongue and hypopharynx in 2010 because of such products, also known as "smokeless tobacco products".
Quoting data from the Indian Council of Medical Research, Azad said the numbers of those affected have been rising - 66,129 in 2008 and 68,160 in 2009.
Welcoming the new notification, health activists said the guidelines will act as a deterrent to the "non-smoking tobacco industry".
"The current notification which defines tobacco as food and bans it is a welcome step. It`s only logical that things like gutka or paan masala which can be chewed and digested like any other food item is termed as food," Bhavna Mukhopadhyay, executive director of the Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI), told IANS.
This, she added, could deal a blow to the Rs.8,000 crore worth gutka industry in India.
Added Rajeev Sharma, a health activist who mobilises youth groups to campaign against smoking: "The notification is definitely a good step. But for it to really mean anything, the government should ensure a strong and effective implementation".
Mukhopadhyay said: "The notification, however, should have gone one step forward instead of just saying that tobacco should not be used as a food ingredient. It seems to wash its hands of the implementation bit...the government should put in place a mechanism by which it is implemented."
One way of implementing the directive better is better awareness, she said.
"There should be a public notice about this notification. How many people know that the government has announced something like this? Secondly, the government should write to the gutka industries about this notification and tell them that they cannot add nicotine to any food product," Mukhopadhyay said.
Mentioning an example of ineffective implementation of rules, she said that despite the Supreme Court`s order banning the sale of chewing tobacco and other paan masala products in plastic packets, it is openly being done so.
The order came into force March 1, 2011.
The president of Smokeless Tobacco Federation (India), Sri Gopal, said that the industry suffered a loss of 40 percent after the ban on plastic packages came into effect.
"Paper packaging of tobacco products has cost us a fall of 40 percent in business," Gopal said.
He, however, refused to acknowledge the latest notification by the FSSAI.
"The tobacco product industry is not governed by the Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) or the FSSAI," he said, thereby putting a question mark on if the notification will actually change anything or it is just a string of words on paper.