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  • Where the State should step back

    Posted On January 17, 2021

    By Karan Thapar

    Modern governments have a distressing tendency to morph into nanny states. MPs and ministers, whose educational qualifications are often negligible or questionable, presume to possess the wisdom to decide for the rest of us what we can or cannot do. Two areas where this is most irksome and least justified is the age at which we can legally smoke and drink.


    We’re considered adult enough to vote at 18 but no government in India permits smoking at that age. Only 6 out of 37 states and union territories allow you to drink at 18. In Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra and the union territories of Delhi and Chandigarh you have to wait till you’re 25. Maharashtra, just to be different, permits light beer – whatever that may be - at 21. For Kerala the legal age is 23. For the rest it’s 21.


    Now the national government proposes to tamper with the age at which we can legally smoke. In 2003 it was set at 18. But the draft Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Amendment Bill 2020 seeks to raise it to 21. The only hope this won’t happen lies in the fact the Health Ministry is seeking public responses to the proposed change. So here’s mine.


    Don’t do it! It’s not an area where governments know better and certainly not an issue on which you should decide for each of us.


    I can understand bans on smoking in areas or circumstances where, inevitably or unavoidably, others who are not smoking get affected. So outlawing smoking in public places like hotels, restaurants, cinema halls, bars, etc. is something we have accepted. But when an adult smokes on his own, or in the company of others who have no objection, the government has no business to intervene.


    After reaching adulthood, if I wish to slowly poison myself to death by smoking – or if others around me wish to do the same by inhaling my cigarette fumes – we have a moral right to do so. There’s a limit to how far governments can legitimately protect us from undesirable habits.


    Remember each time politicians try to do so they diminish our individuality. In fact, they infantilize us. The presumption governments know better is not just arrogance, it’s also hypocritical and often untrue.


    For instance, beedis are taxed very differently to cigarettes on the grounds they are smoked by poorer Indians. But look at the mess Arun Jaitley got into with his first budget of July 2014, when cigarette excise was increased over six-fold from 11 to 72% whilst that on beedis left untouched.


    If cigarettes are so bad for one’s health it justifies a sextupling of their excise why not ban them altogether? That would be the rational thing to do. But Jaitley didn’t because the government would have lost a huge amount of revenue. On the other hand, eight times more people smoke beedis. Yet if you don’t increase the excise on them aren’t you saying you don’t care about the health of beedi smokers? On the grounds they’re poor, it would seem the government is less concerned if they smoke to death.


    This points to a second problem with the government’s tinkering with the rules of cigarette smoking. You often discover its misplaced moral concern is vitiated by a hidden avarice to protect the exchequer’s revenue. Arun Jaitley’s first budget was a perfect illustration. Nanny’s determination to protect us from ourselves stops when it becomes too expensive to do so.


    Now I’m not saying other governments are different or better. But as an Indian citizen I have a right to tell my own to stop being silly. There’s an awful lot Narendra Modi and his ministers have to worry about before barring 18 year olds from smoking. And, anyway, most self-respecting 18 year olds will ignore them. It’s foolish to create laws you can neither morally justify nor credibly enforce.

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