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Global compass

Chewing tobacco plastic pouches banned

15 Mar 2011. India’s EUR 2.92 billion chewing tobacco industry is under severe threat after the country’s Supreme Court banned the use of its popular packaging pouches.

From 1 March 2011, the industry has to adopt non-plastic packaging for products such as gutka and pan masala.

 

According to Rajesh Malpani, secretary general of the Smokeless Tobacco Federation (India), 1 March is too tight a deadline to consider the cost effectiveness of any substitute and develop new packaging manufacturing systems to replace the banned plastic pouches for chewing tobacco which were banned due to complaints about their lack of biodegradability and recyclability. “I am not sure that any feasible option will come even in next six months,” he tells TJI.

 

The most popular chewing tobacco product, gutka, is a preparation of crushed areca nut, catechu, paraffin, lime, flavourings and small amounts – less than ten per cent – of tobacco, while pan masala has similar contents without the tobacco.

 

They have become an increasingly popular form of mild stimulant and mouth freshener in India, especially because of their easy availability at roadside kiosks and low starting prices of just INR 1.00 (EUR 0.016) per two-gram pouch.

 

According to the federation, plastic pouch packages account for about 70 to 80 per cent of such products sold in India.

 

Malpani explains that the largely unorganised and untrademarked gutka industry works on very slim margins but accounts for 20 to 30 per cent of the country’s tobacco consumption. “To protect this industry”, he continues, “we and the plastic manufacturing association have filed impeding petitions in the Supreme Court to get more time and views from experts.”

 

While delivering the verdict in December the Supreme Court seemed aware of the consequences. “Let gutka become costlier,” observed Justice Asok Kumar Ganguly, “the public would benefit.”

 

The decision has been a long time coming. It was brought on by the Jaipur-based Indian Asthma Care Society, which filed its first petition in the case as early as 1994.

 

It is common knowledge that what the ruling really is targeting are health concerns; and the ruling is therefore considered to go against the product itself just as much as it goes against its packaging.

 

“If the industry can do surrogate advertising we can also employ surrogate means to restrict the use of tobacco,” says Dr Virendra Singh, honorary advisor to the society.

 

Speaking to Tobacco Journal International, Dr Singh explains his group’s position. “In the last one month the drains in my hospital were blocked three times because of these pouches,” he says, “furthermore, while consuming a gutka pouch the user spits around ten times. This doesn’t only spoil the walls and the floor, but it can also spread infections.”

 

Malpani admits that proper collection and recycling of the pouches is a big issue but says the 450 members of the federation are ready to provide whatever help is needed.

 

Continuing tobacco farming

 

His group will need to act quickly in responding to the court ruling. Due to the uncertainty about the future, gutka companies have stopped procuring tobacco, which will soon affect thousands of farmers who supply them.

 

“They have already planted tobacco for the next session, which cannot be sold for cigarettes or bidis,” says Malpani.

“The variety of tobacco used for cigarettes is predominantly grown in the Southern state of Andhra Pradesh and it is different from the one used for chewing. Even within the chewing tobacco range there are different raw varieties that include Red Chopadia and Rustica.

Products similar to gutka, but with a higher tobacco content, such as kheni and jafrani, use tobacco from Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, while zarda, a product with 90 per cent tobacco content, uses tobacco from Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Karnataka and Gujarat.”

 

All these varieties of chewing tobacco are at least three times costlier than gutka and are also affected by the packaging ban.

 

The Indian packaging industry is following developments closely and a Gujarat-based entrepreneur, Dipak Sanghvi, of Greendiamz Biotech, claims to have a solution. His pouches are made using imported French technology and consist of bio-compostable materials such as starch and corn, but still provide the oxygen and moisture barriers necessary for storing tobacco.

 

He claims the packaging will compost within 180 days of coming into contact with soil while at the same time having a shelf-life of over a year. However, its estimated cost is 50 per cent higher than the existing pouches – about 20 per cent of gutka’s current selling price.

 

Raghavendra Verma