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Stop Interfering in Tobacco Control Efforts, Leading Hospital Tells Home Ministry

The Intelligence Bureau has been investigating the funding of NGOs working to reduce tobacco usage.

Tobacco India

Professor K.S. Sharma asks for an investigation to see if reports have been “instigated by the Tobacco lobby to derail the efforts of government of India and tarnish our image internationally.” Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: In a strongly worded letter to home minister Rajnath Singh, national security advisor Ajit Doval, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and health minister J.P. Nadda, the academic director of the Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai, has asked government agencies to stop interfering in the efforts of health sector NGOs to reduce tobacco usage in India.

Referring to recent reports that say the Intelligence Bureau (IB) is investigating these NGOs, professor K.S. Sharma has asked for an investigation to see if these reports have been “instigated by the tobacco lobby to derail the efforts of the government of India and tarnish our image internationally”.

In his letter, Sharma, who is also a government nominee to the Medical Council of India, has responded to allegations that these health sector NGOs are creating problems for the tobacco industry: “While the tobacco industry lobbies to enhance their business, public heath activists are lobbying to save disease, death and deprivation”.

It is unusual for health sector organisations to be investigated by India’s highest agencies. It is also unusual for health organisations to be petitioning those in charge of security, such as the home ministry and the national security advisor. But in recent months, many anti-tobacco NGOs have had their licenses for foreign donations revoked by the home ministry. Most recently, the foreign donation license for the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) was revoked. PHFI is a public-private initiative that supports the government on a number of health projects. The licenses for the Voluntary Health Association of India in Assam and Karnataka, and the Institute of Public Health were also not renewed. These are all organisations that have worked alongside the government in implementing several tobacco control measures.

Security and health sector NGOs

Recent reports in the Times of India and Reuters have shown that the IB is investigating the Bloomberg Initiative’s work in India. The Bloomberg Initiative, run by US billionaire Michael Bloomberg, provides grants to various organisations that work on reducing the consumption of tobacco in India. In 2015, Modi had called Bloomberg his “friend” while they both agreed to work on India’s plan to build “smart cities”.

According to the Times of India, the IB prepared its report on the Bloomberg Initiative in June 2016, but it is coming to light only now. The two stories do not say what impropriety, if any, has been found by the investigating agencies, 15 months after the IB filed its report on their investigation.

The document reportedly says, “Lobbying is a commercial activity and should be carried out by for-profit companies under the Companies Act and should not be tax exempt as most Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA)-registered NGOs are”. The Times of India said the IB spoke about lawyers like Prashant Bhushan and Anand Grover who had represented these health NGOs in various tobacco-related litigations.

The document also says that it is the Bloomberg Initiative that had “lobbied” to get India to implement the 85% (of packet size) pictorial warning on cigarette packs in India, which the country implemented. The IB note says that this was done against the recommendations of the statutory body, a parliamentary committee on subordinate legislation, which had recommended only a 50% warning. According to the Times of India, the IB document says, “Foreign corporate interests making ‘foreign contributions’ to FCRA-registered NGOs for purposes of lobbying against an established economic activity raises multiple economic and social concerns. This includes adverse economic impact on 3.5 crore persons of the forced closure of tobacco-related farming/industry”.

However, the implementation of 85% pictorial warnings on cigarette packs had been ordered by the government because of a directive from the Rajasthan high court, which in 2015 had told the health ministry to move swiftly on implementing these packed warnings. And although a Lok Sabha committee on this issue in 2016 had recommended against it, an earlier committee in 2015 had recommended the 85% warning. A Rajya Sabha committee in 2013 had even recommended a 90% warning. Finally, the Supreme Court in 2016 also directed tobacco companies to follow the 85% pictorial warning.

Sharma, who has worked at the Tata hospital for 30 years, wrote in his letter, “I have been following the reports appearing in Media that intelligence wing of your ministry has labelled “tobacco control” as an “unhealthy” activity”. The Wire had earlier reported that doctors from the same hospital have also filed a case in the Bombay high court seeking the court’s intervention to get insurance companies to withdraw their investments in tobacco companies.

He reminded Singh, Doval, Modi and Nadda, that Modi himself had taken anti-tobacco pledges and made many speeches in support of reducing tobacco usage. Minister of state for the home ministry Kiren Rijiju has also taken an anti-tobacco pledge. Those who take the pledge promise to curb the menace of tobacco and “support all initiatives to rid India of this menace and help save millions of live in India”.

Tobacco control is an official government policy. In 2007-08, the health ministry launched the National Tobacco Control Programme to create awareness against tobacco and to implement India’s tobacco law – The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 2003. This programme has a fund of Rs 134 crore for 2016-2017. According to the recent Global Adult Tobacco Survey, 81 lakh lives have been saved through tobacco control.

India’s national health policy, millennium development goals, the national cancer control programme, non communicable diseases control programme and the national tobacco control programme focus on reducing tobacco consumption in India. In June this year, India’s health minister was recognised by the World Health Organization for his efforts towards tobacco control.

In his letter, Sharma wrote, “It is sad that this noble act is being portrayed as part of an international conspiracy”. He drew attention to the numerous legal battles fought between the tobacco industry and the government of India as well as a recent investigation by Reuters, which showed that tobacco major Philip Morris International, was allegedly working to subvert all of India’s tobacco control programnes.