Unfiltered tobacco products avoid regulation in India

NEW DELHI, May 4 (UPI) -- Usmaan Ansaari, 60, has smoked bidi, a type of cigarette, since he was 20 years old. And until he was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago, he had no idea that his habit was dangerous to his health.

Ansaari is not alone. More than 40 percent of Indian smokers aren't addicted to regular cigarettes, but to bidi, a small, thin cigar in which tobacco is rolled and wrapped, without a filter, a World Health Organization survey conducted in 2008 concluded. Few of those smokers are aware of the potentially fatal consequences of their habit.

"The nicotine directly strikes lungs," said Harischandra Shukla, a government doctor, of bidi. "Bidi contains more nicotine, which is more injurious to lungs and causes cancer."

The bidi industry is largely unregulated. About 90 percent of all bidi makers aren't registered with the government, stated a report by the All India Bidi Industry Federation, which was submitted to the World Health Organization's tobacco-free initiative.

“Bidi manufacturers come under the unorganized industrial sector and are not accounted for," said K.S. Dwivedi, a tax analyst in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state. "They are not registered and consequently there is no record of their existence."

One result is that while government regulations require all tobacco products to carry large warning labels, including the warning, "Smoking kills," bidi producers and their products often fall through the cracks.

“Due to unorganized and unbranded production, standardized packaging and labeling are impossible," the federation stated in its report.

And because the producers are unregistered, "even the government can’t take any action for not following the guidelines," said Vijay Mishra, a social activist and director of the Institute of Nature and Life.

For Mitthu Kaachi, a bidi producer, the reason for not complying is partially financial. He said he can't afford to pay for wrappers printed with the warning labels and language.

“We know about the rules but we can’t follow it," he said.

But there's also a lack of pressure for him to do so. Kaachi has produced his own local brand of bidi, Anaar 257, for five years.

“People like our bidi and we are able to meet the demand," he said. "If consumers don’t have any problem with the absence of statutory warning then why should we care?”

The lack of labeling, however, could be killing users like Ansaari, who said he “would have stopped smoking bidi if I was aware of its consequences. I never found any such warning on any packets. Had I or any of my family seen it, it would have at least made me think.”

A major part of bidi's appeal is its price. A packet of branded bidis containing 20 sticks costs about 8 cents, while the price of a normal pack of cigarette ranges from 80 cents to $1.20.

“Bidi’s target consumers reside in villages and (are) people of the lower economic strata," Mishra said. "They are not aware about the hazardous effects of smoking bidi."

One reason the price remains so low may be due to a lack of taxation. While other countries around the globe have slapped all tobacco products with significant taxes to discourage their use, in India the tax on bidi is only a fraction of that on actual cigarettes. The tax on bidi is 28 cents per 1,000 sticks, but on cigarettes, it's $14 per 1,000, Dwivedi said.

Mishra said the government should raise taxes on bidi to discourage people from smoking.

Bidi isn't the only unregulated segment of this market in India. Tobacco farming has virtually no laws controlling production or quality, said Narendra Mishra, an advocate of Lucknow High Court of India. In the last decade, the country has created new rules around the marketing and consumption of tobacco, but none that control its production.

As a result, India is now one of the world's largest exporters of tobacco, say Ministry of Commerce reports.

This has kept raw tobacco prices relatively low -- only $1.20 per kilogram, said Devendra Singh, 29, a tobacco farmer at Etah district of Uttar Pradesh in India, a region famous for its bidi production.

And as a result, bidi production can be a lucrative product for rural villagers. In fact, entire families often get into the business.

“You can easily find women, their kids and whole family working together in production of bidi packets,” Singh said.