Can petty shop owners serve as anti-smoking activists?

On World Environment Day, that is a question worth pondering over

June 06, 2022 01:37 pm | Updated 01:37 pm IST

In an Aesop’s fable — the Gnat and the Bull — the bull is puzzled by the Gnat’s confession. The insect is being apologetic about having occupied one of its horns, and mending its ways, it is now leaving the bull alone. The bull shrugs, saying it did not matter, as it never was aware of the gnat, let alone its intrusive presence on its horn.

Anti-smoking messages put up at petty shops that sell cigarettes in Chennai are like the gnat from the fable. Remove them from the scene and nobody would notice it.

A message on how smoking in public places is not countenanced seems to be staying an effective message only on paper.

In any region, only a handful of shopkeepers — being more realistic, a pinch of them — would try to draw their customers’ attention to these messages.

Given this ground reality, it is indeed refreshing to note that at Praba Tea Stall on RK Mutt Road, anti-smoking messages are scrawled all over the place.

One poster — pasted on the door of a neighbouring outlet — blares out that the Supreme Court has delivered a verdict against smoking in public places.

P Prabhakar, the owner of the stall, has had his enthusiasm going out of hand, and even attached “no-smoking” messages on a rain tree nearby, just being ignorant that trees need to be spared this unhealthy impedimenta.

Prabhakar notes that it is people’s choice to smoke or not smoke — hence, the sale of cigarettes at his shop — but they certainly cannot think of exercising this choice in public places.

“When I tell people who have bought cigarettes from me to not smoke in the shared space, some do not take kindly to it,” says Prabhakar.

To the inevitable question — “Why sell tobacco when you feel strongly against smoking? — answers from shopkeepers assume the uniformity of a chorus.

“Petty shops are largely associated with cigarettes, and if we do not sell them, we would be having very little business.”

On the same road, and others nearby, other shopkeepers have the message displayed, many of them do so in a hugely subdued tone. In one shop, the shopkeeper seems to have forgotten the pasted material near his tea-making counter.

On KVB Garden Road, Asha Devi has pasted the “Do not smoke in public places” message prominently, as the Greater Chennai Corporation workers do make periodical visits to ascertain that this requirement is adhered to.

On Binny Road, the owner of a petty shop, S Murugan, might not have displayed the messages in an eye-catching manner, but one of his regular customers vouches that he shoos away any customer who lights up around his shop.

‘Compliance with COPTA minimal among Chennai shopkeepers’

Around five years ago, three members from the medical field — Divyambik Catakapatri Venugopal from Department of Oral Medicine and Radiology from Sri Ramachandra University and Vidhubala E and Sundaramoorthy C, both from the Department of Psycho-Oncology, Cancer Institute, undertook a study that would assess how aware shopkeepers selling tobacco products in Chennai were of the salient and critical features of Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA).

In their results, the three researchers note that “Awareness of COTPA sections 4, 5, 6a, 6b among the tobacco sellers was 42.0%, 31.0%, 69.3% and 57.2%, respectively.”

And this is their conclusion: “Awareness on tobacco control legislations among tobacco sellers was

found to be moderate. Furthermore, compliance with the COTPA was minimal.”

Section 4 of COPTA is about prohibition of smoking in a public places.

Section 5 of COPTA is about advertisements and any other form of promotion of tobacco products

Section 6-a of COPTA is about prohibition of sale of tobacco products to minors and by minors.

Section 6-b of COPTA pertains to prohibition of the sale of tobacco products in certain areas, particularly educational institutions.

Section 7 of COPTA is about having health warning printed on packets of tobacco products.

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