Ministry swamped by feedback on smoking

NEW DELHI • Bulging sacks of letters gathering dust at India's health ministry are the latest obstacle to a push for tougher laws to curb smoking as more than 100,000 unread messages from members of the public overwhelm officials and stall legislation.

With tobacco linked to up to 900,000 deaths a year in India, the government wants to raise the minimum smoking age to 21 from 18, and ban the sale of single cigarettes, which make up 70 per cent of overall sales. Before taking its proposals to Parliament, the government in January asked for public suggestions. The result was unprecedented: 45,000 e-mail messages and more than 100,000 letters.

Analysing and collating public responses is crucial for the legislative process to move forward. The sheer volume has left officials stumped, with some fearing that it could take as much as five months to sift through the letters.

Some health officials suspect the letter-writing campaign was orchestrated by the tobacco industry to hold up the process.

"It appears to be an organised campaign as a lot of letters were photocopied and sent in samecoloured envelopes from one town or village," said one health ministry official.

While there is no evidence to back up such suspicions, there are signs of an organised letter-writing campaign. At least one pack of letters seen by Reuters consisted of dozens of the same printed objections signed by different people.

Several e-mail messages came from employees of India's largest cigarette maker, ITC. A company spokesman said ITC did not ask employees to send letters.

The government says it is keen to cut tobacco consumption, but health activists say a strong tobacco lobby is pressuring it to go slow.

The Tobacco Institute of India, the industry body, declined to comment.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2015, with the headline 'Ministry swamped by feedback on smoking'. Print Edition | Subscribe