BJP MP's 'tobacco use doesn't lead to cancer' comment sparks row

New Delhi: A huge controversy broke out on Tuesday over comments by a Parliamentary panel head and BJP MP Dilip Gandhi that there was no Indian study to confirm tobacco use leads to cancer, leaving the Government embarrassed and rival parties and the medical fraternity gunning for him.

Gandhi, an MP from Maharashtra, was also described as 'foolish' and 'ignorant' for his 'shocking and absurd' remarks that coincided with the April 1 deadline for increasing size of pictoral warnings on tobacco products being deferred by the Government amid demands by various tobacco lobbies. "Do not listen to these things. Science is science. You cannot compromise on science," Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said disapproving of Gandhi's statement at a news conference where he was asked to give his response.

Gandhi, head of Parliamentary panel on subordinate legislation examining the provisions of Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003, said all studies in regard to health hazards of tobacco consumption have come from abroad and one should consider the Indian aspect too.

The panel had 'strongly' urged the government to keep on hold its proposal to increase the size of pictorial warnings on tobacco packets from 40 per cent to 85 per cent. "All agree on the harmful effects of tobacco. But there is no Indian survey report to prove that tobacco consumption leads to cancer. All the studies are done abroad. Cancer does not happen only because of tobacco. We have to study the Indian context, as four crore people in states like Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh are dependent on bidi-making through Tendupatta," Gandhi said.

He said the Committee has only sought deferment of tobacco warnings till it looks into the whole issue in the Indian context and not be driven by foreign surveys. The statement of Gandhi gave ammunition to opposition Congress with its General Secretary Digvijay Singh demanding a probe to find out whether there was any connection between BJP and cigarette manufacturers. "One has to do some research on the connection between BJP and cigarette, gutka manufacturers. Then only we will find an answer...," Singh said.

NCP MP Supriya Sule expressed her 'shock' at the remarks and termed it as 'unfortunate'. "I am not alarmed but I am shocked anybody can make a statement like that. It is very unfortunate... Maybe he is misinformed or misled by somebody," she said. "Go to Tata Memorial Hospital, oncologists all over India and all over the world have done so much research. All scientists and oncologists are wrong and one person is right. R R Patil who was like a big brother to me died due to this...The world is on one side and this man is on another."

Indian Cancer Society dubbed the comment as most absurd. "I think that is the most absurd comment that could have been made. We are all aware that the amount of research that has been done on cancer in our country because India is one of the countries which has the largest incidence of cancer," said Ulka Bangui of the Society. Bangui said even a layman is aware that lung cancer and oral cancer are clearly caused due to the consumption of tobacco.

Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, an Oncologist at the Tata Memorial hospital in Mumbai, said Gandhi's comments reflects the ignorance by people holding positions like him on issues of importance like public health. "As far as Indian data is concerned there is truckload of information," he added.

Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi alleged that first the NDA government cuts health budgets and is now openly lobbying for the corporates. Monica Arora of the Voluntary Health Association of India said that although the committee on subordinate legislation has made this report for the first time, earlier three reports on tobacco control have recommended that the COPTA provisions be made stronger. "The subordinate legislation committee of Rajya Sabha in 2013 observed that the pictorial warning needs to be 90 per cent. So all those earlier reports have not been reviewed when this committee made its recommendations," Arora said. "There are Indian studies but the fact that cigarette smoked by people in US..would the biology not be the same...same impact not happen to Indians? Would cigarette and bidi behave differently to Indian smokers. It is common sense that anybody smoking cigarettes in other country has shown close or high association with cancer. Why would'nt it happen with any Indian," she said.

Citing 'adverse impact' on livelihood of people involved in the tobacco industry, the panel said a large number of representations expressing 'serious' apprehensions from MPs as well as other stakeholders against the proposed notification.Gandhi had also written to Union Health Minister J P Nadda in this regard seeking deferment of the implementation of the notification.

India has the highest prevalence of oral cancer globally, with 75,000 to 80,000 new cases of oral cancers being reported every year, according to a health report submitted by the Ministry of Health in consultation with National Institute of Health and Family Welfare on the ill-effects of chewing tobacco.

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