Presence on parliamentary panel of MP with tobacco-links questioned

New Delhi: Opposition parties as well as activists on Thursday questioned as to why a BJP MP with substantial interests in the 'beedi' industry was a member of a parliamentary panel studying the harmful effects of tobacco.

Shyama Charan Gupta, a BJP MP from Allahabad, is a member of the committee on subordinate legislation on tobacco which has recommended keeping in abeyance a notification making it mandatory for all tobacco packets to carry a pictorial warning covering 85 percent of its principal display area.

"The statement shows the BJP's support for the tobacco lobby," Congress leader Rita Bahuguna Joshi told the media.

"They are claiming that nothing happens due to tobacco. The tobacco lobby is being supported by the BJP government. Forty percent cancers is caused by tobacco, top doctors have said," she asserted.

CPI-M member Sitaram Yechury said: "He (the MP) is saying things as per his business interests."

The union health ministry heeded a recommendation of the committee when it decided to keep in abeyance an October 2014 notification that made it mandatory for all tobacco packets to carry a pictorial warning covering 85 percent of its principal display area.

The recommendation is, however, not binding on the government.

Gupta had written to the committee in November last year that beedis have very little tobacco and, therefore, "nil" harmful effect -- a claim that flies in the face of reality.

Gupta, on his part, claimed that there was a global conspiracy to kill Indian beedi industry.

"There are many chain smokers who have not got cancer. This is being done by some foreign bodies. Why does WHO want to implement this in India and not in the Unites States, which is a better educated country," he said.

"You should first look into the reasons of any disease. Diabetes takes place after consumption of potato, sugar and other things. Why don't you have warnings on them," he asked.

Gupta added: "Beedis are cottage industry. This will crate unnecessary unemployment."

According to health experts, beedis are estimated to kill 600,000 people annually in India.

Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI) executive director Bhawna Mukhopadhyay said: "The motto of parliament is Satyamev Jayate. MPs who have direct interest in beedi industry should have declared their conflict of interest and should have stayed out of subordinate legislation committee."

The central government's decision to postpone implementation of pictorial warnings that asked for more space on tobacco packaging has saddened many activists.

The VHAI said it was feeling let down by the government's decision to hold the implementation of pictorial warnings with increased area.

Monika Arora, director for health promotion at the Public Health Foundation of India said: "Time and again, tobacco companies have made baseless arguments in their efforts to dilute strong pictorial health warnings and delay their implementation."

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