Deepak Kumar, a former commissioner of customs and central excise in Mumbai, smoked for 40 years. A year after he quit in 2007, he was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx or voice box. Doctors surgically removed Kumar's larynx and replaced it with a prosthetic one.

The prosthetic reduced his ability communicate vocally but it did not deter him from campaigning against Indian Tobacco Company, better known as ITC, the company whose cigarettes he smoked for all those years.

On September 28, Kumar died of cancer at the age of 66. “Even from his hospital bed in August, he was writing letters, and working on the same issues,” said his son Kunal Kumar. "He was a heavy smoker. He made several attempts to quit, but the addiction was too strong. He could only quit in 2007. It was too late then."

First case against tobacco company

Deepak Kumar was one of the leading advocates of the Voice of Tobacco Victims, a campaign of by cancer victims against tobacco lobbies since 2008.

In 2009, Kumar moved the Maharashtra State Consumer Redressal Forum, seeking compensation of Rs 1 crore for severe physical damages, including loss of his natural voice caused by tobacco consumption due to his lack of awareness of the dangers of the product. This was the first such case in India.

In response, ITC filed affidavits from four scientists who said that there is no conclusive evidence to show that smoking causes laryngeal cancer. They also wanted proof by way of bills to show that Kumar had smoked ITC cigarettes. In 2011, the court accepted the ITC arguments and dismissed the complaint.

Kumar could not pursue the case in the higher courts because of continuing ill-health.

Tobacco, along with alcohol, is one of the main causes of laryngeal cancer because it contains chemicals that can damage the cells of the larynx. A 2013 study in Kerala showed a clear association of the incidence of laryngeal cancer with bidi smoking in South Asia – that larger amounts of bidi smoked a day and longer durations of bidi smoking increased the laryngeal cancer incidence rates.

Smoking in the 60s

In 1965, Kumar started smoking at the age of 16 and at a time when warnings were not printed on cigarette packets. As a boy Kumar, and was wooed by a “Made for Each Other” campaign which had a photo of a couple with a cigarette packet in the middle.

Only in 1975, the Cigarettes (Regulations of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 1975 was legislated which mandated a written warning - “Cigarette smoking is injurious to health”.

In 2003, Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, was legislated, prohibited smoking in public areas, advertising, selling tobacco products to minors, among others.

“When he came to Tata Memorial Hospital, he said that he never thought smoking caused throat cancer," said Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, head and neck surgeon from Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, and an anti-tobacco activist. "He felt that it was caused by poor hygiene, malnutrition, and people with poor immunity."

Chaturvedi, along with other doctors from Tata Memorial Hospital, helped Kumar with technical support for the consumer court complaint. “He felt he got a second chance to live and wanted to make others aware about the effects of tobacco,” said Chaturvedi.

Voice against tobacco

In 2014, the government decided to ban loose cigarettes but then stalled the proposal. Kumar wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister talking about his experience before the consumer court which did not succeed because he could not produce any bills on the purchase of cigarettes. Owing to his ill-health, he could not appeal against the State forum order. He had also wrote criticising the government for going slow on laws demanding graphic pictorial warnings on cigarette packets.

He would often speak before the public on issues related to tobacco and cancer. "Though he was not able to talk clearly, he would communicate with the audience," said said son. "He would be called to speak every fortnight almost."

Kumar contracted tongue cancer too before he died. He is survived by three sons.