The death of gutkha baron Rasiklal Manikchand Dhariwal due to oral cancer has brought the man and the disease back into sharp focus.
One of the pioneers of gutkha or chewable tobacco, Dhariwal took the Manikchand empire to soaring heights with an annual turnover of Rs8,000 crore, having struggled in his early years when, as a teenager, he inherited a bidi factory with 20 workers.
The business tycoon’s website boasts what the group considers his achievements. For many others, he was the protagonist who marketed killer pouches that saw a steep rise in the number of cancer deaths.
“Through a patented self-developed process, his tobacco was packed in vacuum sealed pouches and resulted in consistent quality throughout the year. He marketed his product in and around his home town by cycling to places as far as 100km away,” reads the group’s website. “At times he would carry a megaphone around town with his office boy dressed as clown and advertised door to door.”
But as his annual turnover spiked, so did cancer-related deaths.
Ban but no ban
Every year, nearly 85,000 men and 34,000 women get cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx. According to a report of the Union health ministry, at least 90% of these cases are caused by some form of tobacco use, but more than half are caused by use of smokeless tobacco.
The government banned all forms of chewable tobacco products such as khaini, zarda and gutkha in 2013 after a Supreme Court ruling. The ban was implemented under the 2011 Food Safety and Standards Regulation, which states that food products must not contain any substance that is injurious to health, including tobacco and nicotine.
Despite the ban and a subsequent order by the apex court seeking compliance reports, buying chewable tobacco is as easy as buying toffees. Despite 23 states and five Union territories banning it, products continue to be available in the market. Most cigarette shops sell chewing tobacco and paan masala in separate sachets that can be mixed to get the same taste and flavour as gutkha.
Hindustan Times reporters had no difficulty in buying banned chewable tobacco that costs only between Rs4 and Rs10. Multiple brands continue to sell the banned item in the heart of India’s capital and within a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court.
Only a year ago, the easy availability of chewable tobacco was brought to the attention of the court by the amicus curiae Gopal Subramanium. The court had then passed another order, asking for the ban to be enforced in letter and spirit.
The Union health secretary and the national food regulator FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) sent out advisories to states to implement the same. However, implementation continues to be lax.
“According to us, all forms of chewable tobacco is banned, whether it is sold separately or in combination with something, it doesn’t matter,” said Pawan Agarwal, CEO, FSSAI.
The Delhi government, too, issued an order stating that storage, distribution and sale of any product containing tobacco should be stopped.
“There has never been a problem in procuring chewing tobacco products. For a period of a month or so, after the Delhi government order, police became strict. But even then, the products were available at a premium at almost every cigarette and paan stall,” said the owner of a kiosk in Delhi’s Connaught Place.
Several branded packets of plain chewable tobacco, some with GST numbers printed on them, are available for the asking. The manufacturers have found ingenuous ways of trying to appear that they follow ethical business practice –printing on the sachets warnings such as ‘Do not eat, swallow or use as ingredient in any food (non-edible)’.
“According to the law, tobacco or nicotine is not supposed to be used in food products. Khaini (tobacco with slaked lime) is not meant to be ingested, it is supposed to be spit out,” said Ritesh Jain, who heads the marketing team of the export division of Kamna Industries that produces Kuber Khaini.
Himanshu Hans, who works at Chaini, a brand famous for its khaini, offered the same view. The company’s website claims that it produces a ‘filter tobacco pouch’, which is “less harmful than smoking”.
“When you have khaini, you only take in 1.2% of the nicotine, much less than the 7% from cigarettes. Also, smoking adds tar to the mix. So, khaini is much safer. In fact, the United States has been reducing its duty on smokeless tobacco,” said Jain.
Shikhar, another brand that sells flavoured paan masala and a small pouch of tobacco in the same wholesale package, saving buyers the trouble of buying tobacco separately, defended itself, saying, “Several brands of chewable tobacco are available at every paan kiosk.”
“If ours is not available, the vendor will sell someone else’s product. We do not tell the consumers to use the tobacco, they ask for it,” explained Rajesh Soni, who works in the company’s management team.
Not just the sale; even manufacturing chewable tobacco is illegal.
“Chewable tobacco is banned and the manufacturing is by extension banned because if they can’t sell it, why manufacture?” said Agarwal.
However, there are several tobacco manufacturers in Delhi-NCR as well as neighbouring Uttar Pradesh whose products are readily available. Kanpur is a well-known manufacturing hub with more than 100 brands being produced and then marketed in different states.
“All the factories are working overtime in Kanpur; they always have found a way to bounce back in adversity. The lobby is too strong,” said Chotebhai Naronha, who had campaigned for the ban in view of the rising cases of oral cancer.
The legacy of Dhariwal continues to live on.