Indian law prohibits the sale of tobacco products close to schools. The aim is to prevent children from getting early exposure to cigarettes, bidis and gutka.
But a new report finds that tobacco companies still manage to systematically target school children as young as eight. They do this by giving free tobacco products, selling them or placing advertisements near schools.
Companies who engage in this practice include some of the biggest names in the world of tobacco such as British American Tobacco, Indian Tobacco Company (ITC) and Philip Morris.
The study titled ‘Tiny Targets’ surveyed 243 schools and 225 points of sale across 20 cities. It was conducted by Consumer Voice and Voluntary Health Association of India.
They found that school children were being offered a number of “incentives” by tobacco vendors. For example, children were being given free tobacco products at these points of sale, the majority of which are street vendors – Investigators saw this practice at 32.5% of sellers. Many also offered discounts on tobacco products. Others had various types of loyalty and reward schemes, gave free gifts or ran contests and competitions.
Ninety-one percent of all displays around these schools were at a height of one metre, making it a “child’s eye level.” Ninety percent of the displays were around candy, sweets and other items popular with children and 54% of these points of sale did not have any visible health warnings.
Additionally, 90.9% of stores surveyed were selling single sticks of cigarettes and bidis, easy for children to afford.
Most of the popular points of sale were small street vendors.
ITC’s Gold Flake was the most popular brand available out of the 670 brands found. While 52.2% of shops sold cigarettes from British American Tobacco, 25.3% carried ITC.
Making smokers out of children
All of this is of concern to the public health community in India. According to the Union health ministry, 37% of children in India start smoking before the age of ten.
According to the Global Youth Tobacco Survey in India, 14.6% of 13-15-year-old students in India use tobacco.
As per the Union health ministry survey, 28.6% of adults in India already use tobacco.
The youth and adult statistics seen together is important – People get initiated into tobacco consumption in India at the age of 18.9.
Illegal to target children with tobacco
India is already concerned about children being targeted with tobacco products and has stringent laws against it.
It is, in fact, illegal to sell tobacco to minors and for minors to sell such products. This is laid out in the Cigarettes and other Tobacco Products Act, 2003.
Even the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, has rules about the sale of tobacco and criminalises the distribution of tobacco to children.
Tobacco products can’t be sold within a radius of 100 yards of any educational institution.
And points of sale, whether street vendors or grocery stores are not allowed to have any advertising or promotional material for tobacco products.
In 2017, the health ministry also issued an advisory saying that tobacconists should not be allowed to sell sweets, biscuits, chips and soft drinks alongside tobacco products as this may attract non-users of tobacco, especially children.
The government also said all tobacconists should be registered with local civic authorities. The hope here is that this can regulate the sale of various tobacco products such as cigarettes, bidi, gutka and khaini.