On Thursday, the Union Health Ministry asked state governments to develop a mechanism by which shops selling tobacco products would need authorisation from municipal bodies. The ministry also said that such shops should not be allowed to sell non-tobacco products such as candy, chocolates and soft drinks.

“By registering shops selling tobacco, local government bodies will know their locations and can ensure none of the shops are located within close proximity of educational institutes,” said Arun Kumar Jha, economic adviser in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

The Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003 prohibits the sale of any tobacco product within 100 yards of an educational institute. Selling tobacco products, including cigarettes, to a person under 18 years of age is an offence.

Every third Indian is estimated consumes some form of tobacco, even though it is a known carcinogen. Doctors estimate that 50% of cancer cases reported in India are related to tobacco consumption.

In addition, studies have proved that non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke are at risk of developing health problems. For instance, exposure to smoking can adversely affect the health of pregnant women and their foetuses, according to doctors.

Keeping the young away

Welcoming the government’s initiative, anti-tobacco activists said it would help reduce tobacco consumption among teenagers and young adults.

“Studies have shown that 50% of people who consume tobacco started before the age of 17 years,” said Dr PC Gupta, director of the Healis -Sekhsaria Institute of Public Health in Navi Mumbai. “People rarely start tobacco consumption as adults.”

According to the Global Youth Tobacco Survey conducted in 2009, 14.6% of students in higher secondary schools (Classes 8, 9 and 10) in India admitted to using some form of tobacco.

“During our interviews with vendors of shops selling tobacco products, we found that the placement of cigarettes and other tobacco products is decided by tobacco companies,” Gupta said. “The placement is such that tobacco products are looked at the same way as candies and other items in the store.”

According to Jha, the Health Ministry’s directive is to ensure authorisation is given only to shops that refrain from selling non-tobacco products. “If a person who has quit tobacco enters a store which sells tobacco and other products, he may be tempted,” he said. “Cigarette is a regulated product. By this mechanism, we are trying to create an environment where children and adults are not attracted to consumption of tobacco.”

The Health Ministry official said Himachal Pradesh has already started registering tobacco shops. He added that this would help lower tobacco consumption.

However, many are worried that the move will only give legal sanction to tobacco products.

“By legalising shops selling tobacco products, we are saying the product is legal,” said Devika Chadda, vice-president of the non-profit Seed Foundation. “By having pictorial warnings on cigarette packets, we are trying to discourage its use. How will we ban tobacco products if we legalise its sale?”

But many others also feel the registration requirement will curb the growth of tobacco shops. “The regulation by municipal bodies will help curb the mushrooming of these shops,” said Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, a head and neck cancer surgeon and anti-tobacco activist, who pointed out that there is currently no prohibition on the sale of tobacco products. “Children don’t walk to tobacco shops, so limiting the sale of tobacco to certain shops will restrict access,” Chaturvedi added.

Gupta agreed. “If the number of shops reduces, we can expect a drop in consumption and initiation of tobacco habit among teenagers and young adults,” he said.