01/04/2015 4:24 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Face Of India's Anti-Tobacco Campaign Dies, 2 Days After Writing To Modi For More Warnings

Youtube/World Lung Foundation

Less than eight months ago, the Indian Health Ministry started a powerful anti-tobacco campaign under her name, "Sunita". Two days ago, she wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, dismayed at a parliamentary panel's move opposing stricter pictorial warnings on tobacco products. Turns out she won't be campaigning for the cause any longer. In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, she died.

Sunita Tomar, 28, was featured last year as a cancer survivor in the health ministry's anti-tobacco campaign. The 30-second advertisement featuring her was translated into 17 languages, to run for the next few weeks nationally on every government and private television and radio channels, in every state. You saw her in cinemas, warning against the damaging repercussions of tobacco consumption.

Warning: some viewers might find the content of the video disturbing.

Earlier this week, Tomar had written to Modi, appalled at a recommendation to the union health ministry by Dilip Gandhi, BJP MP from Ahmadnagar, who is also the chairman of Lok Sabha’s Committee of Subordinate Legislations. Gandhi had recommended that a medical board first examine the adverse health effects of tobacco on Indians before making it mandatory for tobacco companies to cover 85 percent of their packages with pictorial warnings, a move India had committed to earlier. He had claimed that there are no Indian studies that link tobacco to cancer.

Tomar wrote in her letter to Modi that she was "shocked" that "people in such high posts can be so irresponsible". Arguing that more visible warnings could save others like her, she urged Modi in her letter to take up the anti-tobacco campaign in his monthly radio broadcast with the Indian public "Mann ki baat". The prime minister had spoken about the dangers of drug abuse and addiction in an earlier episode.

The mother of two, who had returned to Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital a few days ago complaining of shortness of breath and weight loss, is said to have had a relapse. She had been treated in the same hospital and declared cancer-free last August after extensive and painful treatment for three years.

“Though she is only one of the 10 lakh Indians who die every year because of tobacco, I am sure her campaign must have saved millions from picking up the habit," her doctor Pankaj Chaturvedi, head and neck surgeon at Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital, told The Indian Express. "She made me promise that we will continue our battle.”

India's Tobacco Problem

According to The Tobacco Atlas, almost 10 lakh Indians die annually due to tobacco-related illness. In 2010, about 3,375 women were killed by tobacco every week. For men, the number was more than triple that. With a third of men and almost a fifth of women in India using smokeless tobacco, we have one of the highest prevalence of users in the world.

While the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS-India) identified that 27.5 crore people use any form of tobacco in India, many people also use tobacco products for dental hygiene, due to widespread misconception of the uses of tobacco in India. This, despite a 1992 law banning the use of tobacco in toothpaste or tooth powder.

Sunita's Story

Tomar had said in the video that had she known of the ill-effects of consuming tobacco, she would have never started chewing it, as she did when she was 22 years old. Tomar, who came from Bhind, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, would chew tobacco from two-rupee pouches. Four years later, she discovered a blister, which was later diagnosed as cancer.

Her entire cheek and jaw had to be removed by plastic surgery, and chemotherapy and radiotherapy followed, when even drinking water, was painful. While the family struggled financially—despite free treatment, they spent close to Rs3 lakh in three months, The Indian Express reported last year. Sunita's husband gave up tobacco on seeing his wife's situation.

Sunita leaves behind her husband, a truck driver, and two teenaged sons.