Tribune News Service
New Delhi, June 3
Evidence is now growing to show that the government has financial interface with the industry and some of its top financial institutions are heavily invested in certain tobacco firms allowing scope for conflicts of interest to arise between anti-tobacco policies and industry interests.
Picture this - Indian Tobacco Company (ITC Ltd), India’s leading cigarette manufacturer, made financial contributions to political parties in 2010 and 2011 and disclosed these in its annual reports as required under electoral reform processes.
Out of Rs 6.78 crore political funding made by the ITC in the last two years, the ruling Congress received Rs 3 crore; its allies in the UPA government received the following contributions: Samajwadi Party (0.42 crores); Rashtriya Janata Dal (0.33 crores), DMK (0.22 crores), and NCP (0.14 crore). Among Opposition parties, BJP got Rs 2.5 crore and Shiv Sena Rs 0.17 crore.
As of March 31, 2011, five among the top 10 shareholders of ITC were government insurance companies which held 20.36 pc shares in the firm. Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC), LIC also has debentures with a book value of Rs 50 crore in Dharmpal Satyapal Ltd, a leading smokeless tobacco company, documents in possession of The Tribune show.
These investments are against the spirit of World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the first ever global public health treaty negotiated under the UN, which India ratified way back in 2003. The treaty requires signatories to avoid conflicts of interests with tobacco industry and have near negligible interaction with them.
Article 5.3 of the convention says: “Government institutions and their bodies should have no financial interest in the tobacco industry unless they are responsible for managing the country’s ownership in a state-owned tobacco company. Parties should not allow any official of the government of any semi/quasi government body to accept payments from industry. Taking into account national laws, parties should have effective measures to prohibit contributions from the tobacco industry…to political parties…”
“The government stand is contradictory as far as tobacco control goes. It is behaving like a corporate and not a welfare body. LIC investments with ITC doubled in last two financial years. The government is spending Rs 10,000 crore on treating tobacco related illness and LIC has Rs 3,500-crore stake in a leading cigarette making firm. It is shocking and perplexing. It may be legal but it is certainly against the spirit of FCTC. India must ensure an end to political donations by tobacco firms. We have written to the Election Commission in this regard," says Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, leading cancer surgeon at Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital, who has treated several tobacco victims.
ITC, when contacted, said it was legal in India to contribute to political parties and the company was disclosing its contributions in annual reports. ITC Corporate Communications Vice President Nazeeb Arif says, “FCTC is not the law of the country. It is sad that precedence be given to an international convention over national laws which don’t prohibit contributions to political parties or government investment in tobacco companies.” He said it was erroneous to consider ITC a tobacco firm because 57 pc of its net segment revenue came from non- cigarette businesses and it had transformed into food processing, personal care, education, etc helping build national brands and sustaining the livelihoods of over five million people. The firm added that per capita cigarette consumption in India was the lowest in the world and smokeless tobacco use was instead growing.
The company, however, didn’t specify how much of its profits came out of the cigarette business. Public health experts, meanwhile, argue that it may be legal for political parties to accept donations from tobacco firms but it is in complete disregard of India’s obligations under WHO’s FCTC which recognises, “There is fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests. The tobacco industry produces and promotes products that have been proven to be scientifically addictive, to cause disease and death.”
FCTC accordingly asks governments to evolve a code of conduct for government bodies and employees to avoid any conflicts of interests in this respect.
Amit Yadav, lawyer with Public Health Foundation of India says, “The issue is not if it is legal for tobacco firms to give donations to political parties. The issue is whether the ruling Congress or any political party, having accepted such contributions, will act fairly if any anti-tobacco law comes before Parliament. FCTC sets guidelines to avoid such conflict of interests. In India, there's inherent conflict of interest within the government. The government- run Tobacco Board encourages tobacco production and export. This at a time when our Health Minister participated in a recent UN meeting on Non- Communicable Diseases which resolved to cut tobacco production by 30% till 2025. How will India do that?”
On May 31, WHO’s India representative Nata Menabde again flagged the importance of protecting public health policy from any possible interference from the tobacco industry.
“How can that happen with the ruling Congress accepting money from tobacco makers and government firms investing in them?” asks Bhavna Mukhopadhyay of Voluntary Health Association of India, which received the national award on May 31 for anti-tobacco work.
In 2010, the then Law Minister Veerappa Moily had, on his AICC letterhead, forwarded anti pictorial warning representations to Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. The Tribune has copies of these. Also, the ITC had written to the Government to defer the implementation of stronger pictorial warnings which were to be enforced from December 1, 2010.
“We had written not against the warnings. We had only written seeking time to implement them,” ITC said.
Special Secretary, Health, Keshav Desiraju, when asked to respond, admitted, “The question of government firms investing in tobacco companies is under the consideration of Finance Ministry. Regarding political contributions by tobacco makers, we have to meet political party representatives and discuss these matters.”
Blatant disregard to WHO convention
World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control requires signatories to have near-negligible interaction with tobacco industry. n
Government institutions and their bodies should have no financial interest in the tobacco industry unless they are responsible for managing the country’s ownership in a state-owned tobacco company. n
Parties should not allow any official of the government of any semi/quasi government body to accept payments from industry. n
Parties should have effective measures to prohibit contributions from the tobacco industry
n Government institutions and their bodies should have no financial interest in the tobacco industry unless they are responsible for managing the country’s ownership in a state-owned tobacco company.
n Parties should not allow any official of the government of any semi/quasi government body to accept payments from industry.
n Parties should have effective measures to prohibit contributions from the tobacco industry