METRO PLUS

Return of the smoker

ON FEBRUARY 12, 1999, the Kerala High Court, in a landmark ruling, banned smoking in public places. Offenders, it ruled, would pay a fine of Rs. 500 or spend 15 days behind bars. The Supreme Court followed it up on November 2, 2001, by imposing a countrywide ban. Passive smokers thought the High Court and Supreme Court rulings would be their salvation, but after the initial optimism, it's heyday again for smokers.

A visit to the cinema will convince any sceptic that smoking in public is still very much a part of life in Kerala. Not only do vendors sell cigarettes, but their customers also choke the passageways hastily puffing away before the screening resumes. What can be worse? In Alappuzha, there is a cigarette vendor right outside the High Court entrance, where both passers-by and policemen puff away amicably, side by side.

Reacting to why things are not working, Monamma Kokkad, the Kochi-based educationalist who moved the High Court and prompted the verdict says, "In this country there are so many prohibitions, that it is difficult to enforce them. So, all the prohibitions meet a similar fate. The police who were alert for the first two months are now inactive. The people must do their part in getting laws implemented. When the rights of a non-smoker are violated, he/she must stand up for them. That will make the difference."

Parks, roads, bus stands, bus stops, educational institutions, auditoriums, cinema halls, clubs, hotels, restaurants and bars are classified as public places. But it's common knowledge that most hotels, restaurants and bars still sell cigarettes; hotels still keep ashtrays in their lobbies, restaurants and bars. One only needs to see the numerous petty shops in the city and the number of smokers clustered around them to gauge the effectiveness of the law.

According to a petty shop owner, initially the police were very strict in enforcing the rule and sales dropped drastically by around 30 to 50 per cent. But soon things were more or less back to normal. This is a view echoed by others. A prominent hotelier says that though they discourage customers from smoking at their bar and lobby, they are sometimes forced to give in to their customer's demands. "Ashtrays placed in the lobby are just part of the d�cor, a mere substitute for trash bins," he adds. Bar owners do not object to customers smoking on their premises.

According to Narayana Kurup, former High Court judge who penned the landmark ruling, judicial activism has helped a lot in curbing smoking in the State and in creating awareness worldwide, but the monitoring has been tardy.

"There is a petition before the High Court to appoint an official to oversee the enforcement of the ban. If that is implemented, the movement will receive a fillip. There should be a sense of social commitment on the part of the police, the Government and the local administration, as it was in this spirit that the judgement was originally passed," he opines.

But why are the police sitting on the judgement? According to one prominent citizen who requested anonymity, it is not enough for the judiciary to act, but also for the legislature to follow suit.

"The police do not consider smoking to be a cognisable offence and will act only if the act is committed in their presence. Adultery is a serious offence, which carries a seven-year term, but do you see the police on all-out effort to curb adultery," he questions.

"In a democracy, the legislature has to pass a law for it to have teeth. It is like the ban on bandhs and plastic packets -- it has been even less effective. But the so-called ban on smoking has at least helped create awareness and people are now aware that it's not right to smoke in public," he adds.

Though advertisements endorsing tobacco products have been selectively banned, cigarette companies still promote events and garner huge publicity for themselves. Besides, movie stars smoke like hell on the big screen.

A recent survey by the WHO in India found that teenagers who watched Bollywood film stars smoke were 16 times more likely to smoke themselves.

One only has to switch on primetime TV to see how much smoking and drinking have become a part of our culture.

Most of the Malayalam TV serials and movies are filled with images of pensive heroes and villains drinking and smoking. The warnings on cigarette packets too are minuscule.

In fact, Kerala is better off than most other States.

In Bangalore, you can easily stroll down the busiest street with a cigarette in one hand and disappear into your favourite pub, where nobody will frown as you help yourself to the rest of your packet.

In Goa, where smoking in public was banned around the same time as in Kerala, things aren't much different. Kerala is also better off than Delhi, the first of the States to ban smoking in public.

The WHO estimates that there are 4.9 million smoking-related deaths a year, worldwide.

According to a survey conducted recently by another international organisation, an estimated 6,00,000 people die every year from tobacco-related diseases in the country.

The Indian Medical Association pegs this figure much higher, at 1 million a year.

There are around 18 crore tobacco users in this country, 22 per cent of them being women.

The fact is that despite the recent ruling by the Supreme Court, the country's lawmakers have been tardy in protecting the health of the citizens.

CHANDY JOHN

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