So far, we have come to believe that the use of cigarettes or drugs starts in puberty due to peer pressure or enthusiasm for new experiments, but the truth is different and bitter than this. Have we ever thought that our school children are getting exposed to this dangerous addiction at a very young age? The statistics of many studies, researches and surveys in this regard are disturbing.
Statistics show that on average, children of 10 years of age are using tobacco products. Their access to tobacco products is very easy, as even the shopkeepers do not refuse them. In 2012, the average age for children to start using tobacco products was 12 years three months. In the year 2019, this age was reduced to 10 years. It shows how the risk is increasing. Our children have started using tobacco products at an even younger age. This needs immediate attention in some parts of the country, such as the northeastern states, especially Mizoram and Assam, as tobacco products have made their way into children up to the age of six.
Recently, the Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare Mansukh Mandaviya released the National Fact Sheet of the Global Youth Tobacco Survey-2019. This report is eye opener. According to the report, how much tobacco use is increasing among school going children in the age group of 13-15 years. According to the survey, one in five children aged 13-15 years used some form of tobacco (in smoking, smokeless and other forms) in their life. The prevalence of tobacco use among boys is 9.6% and among girls is 7.4%. The prevalence of smoking among school children of this age group was found to be 7.3%, while in the case of smokeless tobacco products the prevalence was found to be 4.1%.
Obviously, our children are falling prey to the dangers of tobacco very fast. Before it is too late, we must intensify efforts to stop this problem. We believe that if COTPA (Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act – 2003) is equipped with stringent rules and penalties, it can prove to be an important tool in curbing tobacco use. Worryingly, the tobacco lobby has been putting millions of lives at risk by bypassing these laws for a long time. It is mandatory for tobacco companies to prominently include statutory warnings like ‘Tobacco use is injurious to health’ on their products. But they have taken the guise of saffron, cardamom, rose and other such ingredients and have circumvented these laws by advertising their products. Many tobacco companies advertise film actors to attract children to tobacco products. By law, such advertisements should be considered a punishable offence.
It is to be mentioned here that the fines prescribed in various anti-tobacco laws are very less. It is not possible to stop tobacco use through these laws. Imagine a fine of only Rs 200 for a crime as big as pushing a child into tobacco use! This outdated rule will also have to be changed, so that children cannot fearlessly look for an alternative path.
NCPCR has also taken initiative at the school level in collaboration with COTPA. NCPCR is also installing cameras in schools to keep an eye on illegal activities. Along with curbing the sale of notified drugs and cough syrups etc., to protect children from narcotics, it is also installing cameras in medical stores and pharmacies. NCPCR is of the view that amendment in COTPA is a necessary step, which should be taken up at the earliest.
(The author is the chairman of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights)