Before the dust could settle over BJP lawmaker Dilip Gandhi's claim that an India-specific study was needed to prove that tobacco caused cancer, a colleague of his has now chimed in, saying there is no evidence to link tobacco to cancer.
"Why can't doctors explain why chain smokers don't get cancer?" Shyam Charan Gupta, a member of the parliamentary panel of subordinate legislation chaired by Gandhi, told NDTV.
"Sugar is also harmful and causes diabetes - no one can stop that," said the BJP lawmaker, the news channel reported.
The panel, which examined a proposal to mandate that 85 percent of the surface area of the packaging of tobacco products should be graphic pictorial warnings, recommended that such a move should not be mandated.
But Gupta shouldn't have been part of the panel while it examined this proposal--he has business interests in tobacco. By his own admission, his beedi business has an annual turnover of Rs. 200-250 crore and accounts for 1-1.5% of India's beedi trade.
“Beedis are my ancestral business. Shyam Beedi is the brand name. We have been around for 30-40 years. Our annual turnover is Rs 200-250 crore from beedis alone," he told The Indian Express. "During the tendu plucking season, we employ between 30,000-50,000 contractual workers to pluck leaves in the forest lots auctioned in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh."
Earlier this week, Gandhi, chairman of the parliamentary committee, recommended that government study the impact of increasing the size of the pictorial warning on the livelihood of tobacco workers and revenue. "There is no Indian survey report to prove that tobacco consumption leads to cancer. All the studies are done abroad," he said.
Health Ministry rejects proposal
Health Minister JP Nadda has ignored Gandhi's recommendation. “We have put the order in abeyance as the parliamentary committee wants to deliberate on some issues. We stand by our commitment to introduce new picture warnings,” he said.
But such instances of conflict of interest are not uncommon. While the committee on subordinate legislation is of a more general nature, more specific ones in civil aviation, defence and several others are populated by members with 'expertise' in those domains. This sometimes result in a conflict of interest.
For instance, Vijay Mallya, who owned Kingfisher Airlines, served on the parliamentary panel on civil aviation.
Gupta also told The Indian Express that move to make pictorial warnings bigger is an American conspiracy targeting Modi's 'Make In India' campaign.
“Beedis are made from green leaves which are dried. It has a herbal effect. Admittedly there is some nicotine in tobacco but the quantity is very small. I know because I am in the business. I can show you thousands of people who smoke beedi and are fine. America-funded NGOs are trying to put the blame for lifestyle diseases on tobacco in a bid to kill the indigenous industry. They will destroy Modi’s Make in India call,” he said.
Gupta also made a distinction between smoking and eating tobacco.
“When you chew, it goes into your stomach and has an effect. When you smoke, it is different. This distinction has to be made. Besides, what is the point of fighting for pack warnings when 40 per cent of the beedi market is unbranded?” he said.