Thursday, December 4, 2014

What is the connection between Tobacco and Food?-A tenuous one?

Tobacco played an important role in the economy of some countries like the US which accounts for two third of the world's production and ever since its use is being frowned upon because of its association with cancer, those engaged in tobacco business have been looking for exiting the same for greener pastures. The tragedy of tobacco industry was so gigantic that no one wants this to be repeated again for the horror it created for millions of smokers who were addicts to this seemingly innocuous habit of smoking. If  WHO is to be believed 100 million people are supposed to have perished due to the smoking habit while it estimates another billion to die during the current millenium if smoking addiction is not reversed in time. In terms of economic impact the manufacturers of cigarettes containing tobacco had to suffer severe losses due to scientific findings that proved they cause cancer. A logical question that arises out of this punitive action on the tobacco industry is how culpable are consumers in this complex case which had become a land mark judicial judgement indicting the industry?

In a democratic country the citizen has the right to do any thing that does not "injure" the society at large though in constitutions of different countries reasonable restrictions are imposed, again for the benefit of the country as a whole. After all smoking a cigarette is a personal choice but smoking in the public can definitely harm others nearby and therefore any country will restrict smoking in public places. Even to day no country has totally banned cultivation of tobacco or manufacture of cigarettes, probably because of economic reasons. Same is true with Alcoholic beverages also and it is a part of history that "prohibition", famously coined to a situation where alcohol consumption is legally banned , never worked leading to illicit distillation and emergence of a "dangerous", substandard potions being distributed under the very nose of the government. The lesson to learn from these two examples is that human behavior is difficult to be controlled by any government and ultimately education and better awareness about ill effects of such habits can only work in the long run.

Coming to food industry, is there any similarity between this industry and tobacco industry?. Some legal pundits ascertain that damage to health due to high fat, high sugar and high salt foods being promoted by them, knowing well that they are addictive in nature like tobacco, cannot be condoned. There are a few scientific studies implicating these foods in creating addiction to them due to the physiology of humans and such addiction becomes irresistible over a period of time. Imagine almost a third of American population numbering more than 100 million are proved to be clinically obese causing that nation to incur a whopping medical bill of $ 147 billion annually. Obesity was declared as an epidemic in the US a decade ago and if adequate scientific data can be marshalled to link it up to foods they eat, sold to them by the food industry, could there be a case for a mass action suit for economic damages by the state, similar to the one that succeeded in the case of tobacco? 

As strange coincidence one can notice is the shifting of business interests during the last 15 years by many of the tobacco giants to food processing by acquiring many major companies with reputed brands of a diverse portfolio of packed foods. How can any body be blamed inference is drawn that they would repeat the strategy of making these foods as addictive as cigarettes which they did systematically in the last millenium? The indictment of tobacco industry was based mostly on the following counts: guilty of racketeering, conspiracy against the public by hiding about health dangers and the addiction quality of the products, secretly working to increase addiction power of their products for kids etc. Can these same counts be applied to today's food industry? Probably some of them may be applicable to foods also though more evidence has to come for conclusively proving them.

In discussions centering around obesity, some industry players are taking it more seriously and there are many instances when dangerous ingredients have been weeded out voluntarily. Similarly voluntary measures such as reduction of salt in food products is being achieved through persuasion and cajoling in some countries. On the other hand good intentioned measures to restrict serving size and jumbo packings to curb over consumption, are being resisted by the industry. So also is the innocuous demand by consumers to declare use of GMO foods which the industry does not want for reasons not very clear. Recent attempts by consumer activists to make food industry more transparent regarding the safety of hundreds of flavor chemicals used in thousands of products to make them more attractive, is also being resisted by the manufacturers who do not want any oversight by independent safety authorities. If such illogical practices continue, a day will come soon when the industry will have to pay a very heavy price if and when linkages are established beyond doubt to diseases like cancer, r high blood pressure, cancer, CVD etc. It is in the interest of the industry not to repeat the mistakes by the tobacco industry which hid the true data from the government and the consumer about the seriousness of health risks associated with cigarette smoking. Full cooperation with the government and a transparent relationship with the consumer will go a long way to preempt any situation in future that may cause huge financial damage to their business.. 

When we talk about punitive legal action in a country like India it may never work. Even in tobacco products the very same industry which forked out billions of dollars to smokers in the US who suffered from smoking, got away scotfree in India and we have not heard of any reparations paid to any Indian citizen so far. Therefore there may not be any possibility that citizens here will be benefited by such class action suits. Such a sobering thought should not make the food industry insolent and intractable to ignore genuine grievances of the consumer community. The fact that FSSAI is not functioning as efficiently as it ought to have been doing, should not be exploited by the industry to ignore the well being of the consumer through undesirable malpractices and less than optimal processing conditions. One redeeming feature of food industry in India is that majority of manufacturers are law abiding and will not do any thing that infringe on safety of the products they make. The biggest worry is the large number of players in the unorganized or informal sector who can play spoil sport due to ignorance, lack of assistance from public food technology agencies and limited market out reach. Ministry of Food Processing must wake up to address this reality if it has to serve any purpose for its dreary existence. 


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