A high rate of Goods and Services Tax (GST) on nicotine gums and patches may be a deterrent to those weaning themselves off chewing or smoking tobacco, experts have said.
They say that options to help quit tobacco should be easily and economically accessible to people to counter the exponential rise in tobacco-related cancers and deaths. “We cannot lose out on people who intend to quit tobacco. The means for quitting have to be cheap,” Dr. Jagannath P, a former tobacco control consultant for Karnataka, said.
Dr. Jagannath, who has also worked on a World Health Organisation-funded project under the National Tobacco Control Programme, wrote to the Ministry of Health last week, demanding that nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products either be exempt from GST or be in a lower tax slab than the current 18%. “It is unfortunate that NRT is not regarded as critical medicine today, especially as the number of malignancies triggered by sustained nicotine use is on rise,” he said.
Nicotine withdrawal can cause a person trying to quit tobacco to relapse into the habit. NRT involves giving such people low and tapering doses of nicotine in the form of gums or patches. The nicotine used in these products is a processed chemical called nicotine polacrilex, which is approved under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act. “It is absolutely harmless,” Dr. Jagannath said.
One piece of gum contains about 2mg of nicotine, while a cigarette contains nearly 5mg of nicotine. “The cost of one piece of gum comes up to ₹5 or ₹6 in the market. A person on NRT requires nearly eight to 10 a day, and the therapy continues for about six months. A patch costs ₹120 to ₹150. A person requires one patch a day for nearly three months … having no GST at all is the best option. But even by reducing the slab, there would be some relaxation in prices,” Dr. Jagannath said.
According to Dr. P.C. Gupta, head of the Healis Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health, NRT has to be in the lowest tax slab. “If we want to encourage people to quit tobacco, it has to be economical,” he said.
Experts also say that there is an increasing trend of people buying over-the-counter gum to quit tobacco. But NRT works best when prescribed by a physician and clubbed with counselling, say doctors.