The Union Health Ministry has called for a ban on sale of tobacco products and spitting in public places in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, PTI reported on Friday. Several states, including Rajasthan and Bihar, have taken steps to curb spitting after chewing tobacco in public places.

In a letter, written on May 11, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said that people who chew smokeless tobacco tend to spit in public places. He noted that this was a health risk, especially triggering the spread of contagious diseases such as Covid-19, tuberculosis and swine flu, among others.

The health minister added that using these tobacco products also created an unhygienic environment. “Large gatherings at the retail outlets where smokeless tobacco products are sold also pose the risk of spread of Covid-19,” he added.

Vardhan said that chewing tobacco products and areca nut increases saliva that is followed by a very strong urge to spit. “Spitting in public places could enhance the spread of Covid-19,” he said, adding that by imposing the ban, states and Union Territories can not only help in “achieving Swachh Bharat [Clean India], but also Swasth Bharat [Health India]”.

The use of tobacco is also a major threat to public health across the world, the Union minister said. He highlighted the Indian Council of Medical Research’s appeal in April to not consume smokeless tobacco products and spit in public places. The health research body had said that it could enhance the spread of the coronavirus.

Vardhan mentioned the guidelines issued by his ministry under the National Disaster Management Act, 2005. The notification said that “spitting in public places shall be punishable with fine as may be prescribed by the state/UT [Union Territory] local authority and consumption of liquor, pan, gutkha, tobacco etc in public places is not allowed”. However, while revising its guidelines for the third phase of the lockdown earlier this month, the government had permitted the sale of liquor in green zones of states.

The health minister also appreciated the efforts taken by a few states to create awareness about spitting in public places and steps taken to curb the spread of Covid-19. On April 22, the Jharkhand government had issued a notification prohibiting cigarettes, e-cigarettes, bidi, paan-masala, gutka and consumption of a few other tobacco products in public places. The state had said the offence will be punishable under Section 188 (disobedience to an order lawfully promulgated by a public servant) of the Indian Penal Code. Violators would also attract imprisonment of six months or a fine of Rs 1,000.

On April 14, the Bihar health department had prohibited spitting in public places. A violation of the order would be punishable with a fine of Rs 200 or six months in jail, the state government had said. On April 10, the Rajasthan government had issued an ordinance imposing a ban on spitting in public places and sale of paan, gutka and tobacco.

Meanwhile, Senior Programme Officer of Voluntary Health Association of India Binoy Mathew said that on April 29, a review of studies by public health experts convened by the World Health Organization found that smokers are more likely to develop severe diseases, as compared to non-smokers.

Smoking tobacco is a known risk factor for many respiratory infections. Mathew cited the Global Adult Tobacco Survey to say that India has the second-largest number of tobacco users in the world as 268 million or 28.6% of all adults in the country use them. “At least 12 lakh die from tobacco-related diseases every year,” he added.

India has so far recorded 81,970 cases and 2,649 deaths, according to figures from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

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