Mr. Gurcharan Das released the book at a function on 6 May, 2000, in New Delhi. Prof. Lal summarised his paper. Dr. Shreekant Gupta of Delhi School of Economics, commented on the paper, and the meeting was chaired by Dr. Bibek Debroy of Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies. There was a livey question and answer session at the end. The programme schedule of this event is available here.
In his paper, Prof. Lal, while acknowledging that tobacco use is harmful, warns against making unjust economic claims against tobacco in the health activists attempt to reduce smoking. The Bank proposes increasing taxes on tobacco, but Prof. Lal finds that the economic welfare losses from existing taxes are huge. He says, “For India, the per smoker loss from current taxation is nearly twice per capita GDP, and the aggregate loss from current and future taxation (of, say, a 10% per annum increase in taxes for 10 years) would be a massive 80% of current GDP.” The anti-tobacco crusade from the West, like the environmental one as manifested at the WTO meeting Seattle last December, is the newest manifestation of the neo-imperialistic desires.
Prof. Lal concludes that the Bank provides no cogent reasons for its crusade against tobacco in the developing world, particularly since most of the costs and benefits are privately borne in these countries. “The attempt to inflict the estimated large losses of economic welfare on poor people is wicked and shameful, when for so many of these poor the noxious weed is one of the only sources of pleasure in lives which remain nasty, brutish and short.”
The second paper in this volume is by Professor Roger Scruton, a well-known British philosopher and writer. He warns of the harms to national sovereignty of allowing the World Health Organisation to dictate global policy on tobacco. Furthermore Scruton makes an eloquent defence of smoking - The WHO has no right to tell you if you can smoke. Smoking is a choice, not a disease. Mrs Brundtland, the head of WHO is trying to become a global nanny, and to export her desires for a Tobacco Free World (through a UN style Convention), she has resorted to claiming that tobacco is a disease. Scruton is alarmed that by claiming tobacco as a disease it opens the floodgates to more conventions, perhaps on drink, drugs, cars all of which kill, the list is endless.
“In our secular age, it is more than ever necessary to safeguard the old idea of law, as a guardian of individual freedoms, rather than an instrument of enforced conformity. Wherever legislation is unnecessary it is wrong. And the decision whether it is necessary should be ours, and made through our elected legislatures”, writes Scruton. It seems ironic, that at a time when “democratisation” and “devolution” are the buzzwords, unelected and unaccountable trans-national agencies such as the WHO are formulating global legislation “in order to impose the social and political agenda of handful of activists.”
Barun Mitra of Liberty Institute, writing the foreword to this volume says that democracy empowers the citizen by giving him the freedom of choice in the political domain. By the same token it is untenable to suggest that the same citizen is incompetent to exercise the same freedom to decide on more mundane issues such as whether to smoke or not. Mitra also points out a number of instances where people have voluntarily sorted this issue without recourse to any legislation. “Depending on the nature of their passengers, many privately operated chartered bus services in Delhi, often charge extra for qualities such as smoke free rides or allowing smokers.” This is in contrast to the failure to bring in even one prosecution under the recent law in Delhi that prohibits smoking in many public and private places, although the law is observed more in the breech.
War is always painful and expensive. Clearly, the one on tobacco is no exception, but it can easily be avoided. It requires recognition of fellow human beings as necessarily equal. The message may be simple, but human history is a story of a continuous struggle to claim that equality. Let’s not add tobacco to that onerous list.
The book, War on Tobacco: At What Cost, is priced at Rs 100/-, and is available from Liberty Institute. It is the fourth in the series of occasional papers brought out by the Institute. The Institute is a public policy research and educational organisation dedicated to highlighting the fact that political and economic freedoms are two sides of the same coin, and that separating one inevitably endangers the other.
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