We keep hearing about so many things that are bad for health—cigarettes, liquor, gutka, hard drugs, processed foods… a long list of ‘shouldn’t touch’ items about which we read every now and then.
But what about beedis? Are they okay?
Apparently so, because hardly anyone talks about them.
Let’s have a look at the facts.
Beedis are just as harmful as cigarettes, probably more so, especially because today’s cigarettes have filters, but few beedis do. Beedis contain three to five times as much nicotine, tar and carbon monoxide as cigarettes, which cause cancer, respiratory ailments, and heart problems—all the bad effects of cigarette smoking.
Beedi smokers number more than twice that of cigarette smokers. This gap is steadily rising because cigarettes are becoming more and more expensive and there is a trend of cost-conscious smokers switching from cigarettes to beedis.
Beedis are cheaper than cigarettes because of two reasons:
- Taxes are lower on beedis – just 22%, whereas cigarettes are taxed at 52.7% and gutka (chewing tobacco) at 63.8%.
- Beedis are hand-rolled, not machine-made as cigarettes are. About 90% of the workers involved in beedi production are women and children. They are paid less than the minimum wage.
The net effect: beedis sock our country with a triple whammy.
First – health.
Not only do the beedi smokers themselves suffer the impact on their health, the people around them, a lot of whom are children, suffer the ill effects of passive smoking.
Beedi workers spend long days in an environment of tobacco flakes and dust, which they can’t help but inhale. Infections of the throat and respiratory tract, as well as TB and cancer, are many times more common amongst people exposed to tobacco dust for extended periods. These unfortunate women and children don’t even get gloves or masks.
Second – the cost.
These health issues have a massive cost. As far back as 2017, a study concluded that beedi smoking—not smoking at large, just beedi smoking—costs the economy Rs80,000 crore a year. This consists of direct medical costs (treatments, hospitals, etc.), associated costs of caring for the afflicted, and the economic costs of loss of employment and early deaths.
Given that nothing has changed in the beedi business since then, the sales of beedis keep growing, and inflation keeps increasing the costs; one cannot help feeling that even if the 2017 cost estimate of Rs80,000 crore is assumed to be greatly exaggerated, the number cannot be less than this as of today.
This is just the monetary cost. It is impossible to estimate the emotional cost of the suffering that is caused by ill health.
The third—the exploitation of women.
Beedi workers toil the whole day in unhealthy environments and get paid a pittance for it. The 8mn (million) or so beedi workers, mostly women and also some pitiable children, are part of the ‘unorganised sector’. Beedi factories, or rather - workshops, are small outfits, and the workers are paid by the number of beedis they roll, not by a regular salary. They get no benefits and have no unions.
Basically, they are needy women. They toil to earn a meagre income on a low-skill job because they have no other employable skills. This makes them ideal targets for exploitation. Beedi workers are paid much less than workers in other industries, but they can do nothing about it.
This brings us to the elephant in the room - the ‘industrialists’ who dominate the beedi business.
Make no mistake – beedis are big business.
As you may expect, it is not easy to find out the details about the ‘beedi barons’ and their business empires. Their businesses are family-run, built from the ground up over decades, and split into many different entities for ‘tax purposes’. They started off as traditional businesses but, with the passage of time, they have begun using infrastructure and marketing to expand the business. But, they do not, and perhaps never will, burden themselves with corporate governance, independent directors and all the other niceties of the corporate world.
Nevertheless, a few glimpses are available in the public domain: several beedi barons drive Ferraris, Bentleys, etc, another is an MLA (member of legislative assembly) who grabbed headlines by switching his party affiliation, yet another was handed a life sentence for killing a security guard who was slow to open the gates of his villa.
As you can see, not everyone suffers from the ill effects of beedis!
I don’t need to explain to you why governments, not just the current governments but all previous governments, turn a blind eye to the murky aspects of the world of beedis. You know it better than I do, probably.
But I simply don’t understand one thing.
In almost every Budget, the tax on cigarettes is increased. Cigarette packs bear horrible pictures of smokers with grotesque deformations. Smoking is banned everywhere. Films carry notices that 'smoking is injurious to health'.
So, here we have a business that is taxed heavily, discouraged socially, and actively campaigned against through warnings.
An identical business harms the health of crores of people, causes a huge monetary loss to the poorest segment of society, and exploits poor women and children.
But the government pays little heed to it.
Is this politics? If so, I am glad not to be a politician.
Purely as one of the ‘mango people’, may I suggest that the government does something to alleviate the suffering of the women and children who have no option but to roll beedis?
Like, insist that they get minimum wages, masks and gloves, and regular health checks?
For a government that extols nari shakti, promotes beti bachao, and legislates reservations for women—surely these will not be discordant steps?
I trust you agree.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)