Now govt wants states to ban pan masala, zarda

The Union Health Ministry, in its efforts to push for a countrywide ban on edible products containing tobacco, has written to all states and Union territories pointing to a 1982 Allahabad High Court order and an executive order issued by the Mizoram government last August banning pan masala and zarda.

The move comes at a time when the Rs 8,000-crore gutkha industry has unleashed an advertising blitzkrieg protesting against the ban.

The letter dated November 21 from Special Secretary Keshav Desiraju is a follow-up to a similar letter sent earlier to states on gutkha following which several states including Delhi banned it. It states that the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 has laid down that tobacco and nicotine cannot be used as ingredients in food products and that the 1982 court order and an earlier one in 1981 had categorised zarda and tobacco as food.

A copy of the Mizoram order has been enclosed with the letter for necessary action. The letter also quotes Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) figures to point out that 206 million Indians were using smokeless tobacco in 2010. It is believed to be responsible for 80-90 per cent of all oral cancers in India and is also thought to play a major role in cancers of the stomach, foodpipe also the urinary bladder.

Earlier the Health Ministry had pushed for a ban on gutkha following an SC observation that pan masala, gutkha or supari are eaten for taste and nourishment and that they are all food items within the meaning of Section 2(v) of the PFA Act. It would imply that they cannot contain a harmful substance like tobacco. But this is for the first time that the ministry has extended its opposition to pan masala and zarda.

Tobacco control officials say that since health is a state subject, the ministry cannot ask the states to ban pan masala and zarda. But given the clear judicial position on the matter, a clear stand on the issue is long overdue. "Since Mizoram has already set a precedent, we thought it fit that other states should be informed about the legal position," a senior official said.

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