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When India's government added nicotine replacement therapies to its list of essential medicines, tobacco harm reduction advocates celebrated a win for smokers looking to quit. But was this success short lived, and has India returned to an anti-nicotine frame of mind? Joining us today to discuss India's track record with nicotine is journalist Samrat Chowdhery.


0:00 - Coming up on today's programme
0:39 - India's latest battle with nicotine
3:07 - Has India just made it tougher for smokers?
3:46 - Bloomberg funding hits brick wall
5:44 - Donation raises questions about vape ban
7:51 - Register for #GFN24 today!


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Joanna Junak: Hello and welcome. I'm Joanna Junak and this is GFN News on GFN.TV. In today's program Samrat Chowdhery, a journalist and consumer advocate from India, will discuss the key developments in India which he mentioned in his latest article in Tobacco Reporter. Hello Samrat, thank you for joining us today. Last year, the Indian government finally accepted WHO recommendations by including medicinal tobacco cessation nicotine replacement therapies, known as NRTs, in the National List of Essential Medicines. Can you tell us more about it?

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Samrat Chowdhery: Sure. See, when the government finally included NRTs in the list of essential medicines, we really welcomed that decision because we thought finally people will have easier and more affordable access to NRTs. Because in India, leave alone, not even cigarette smokers can afford a full course of NRTs, because they're medicalized and they're expensive to get. So even people who smoke cigarettes cannot. So now we're talking about people who smoke BBs and then, you know, smokeless tobacco which is much cheaper so for them. So when the government said we'll bring this under the national list of essential medicines we thought okay more people will have access but now we hear some sort of a negative thinking people and i think and i am afraid it could also be because of vaping and other novel products because they are also low risk so then there is a movement against nicotine you know so now they think that [Samrat Chowdhery]:a lot of people are using NRTs for temporary abstinence. For example, when they're taking flights or in situations where they cannot use their tobacco product. And they think that this is not a good thing and they want to clamp down on that. And that is why now they're making it even more difficult for people to access these products. Because people who cannot just afford over-the-counter NRTs, for them to now go to a doctor, get a prescription, you're just making it more difficult for them to quit. So I'm not sure where this negative thinking is coming from, but I think it could, the Bloomberg groups could have a role in this because there is this now, the movement, the war is not against tobacco anymore. Now it's against nicotine. And NRT somehow fall into that picture. But it's taking us further away from the solution because not only now, smokers in India don't have access to risk reduction like vaping and HNB. But now they will also find it more difficult to access NRTs. Now this is in the proposal stage and I hope the government doesn't accept something so radical as this, which doesn't help at all.

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Joanna Junak: So considering the misinformation surrounding safer products now, it might seem that people will continue smoking without exploring other alternatives, right?

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Samrat Chowdhery: Yeah, well, not only did they not have access to vaping and heated tobacco, but now it looks if this proposal is accepted, then they will have even less access to NRTs. And I don't see how the government plans to reduce tobacco use or the harm from tobacco and meet all of its goals. It's committed to the WHO and the FCTC.

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Joanna Junak: And in your recent article titled "A Perfect Storm", you discuss a few other major developments. One of them is the severe government action against one of the biggest global non-profits in tobacco control. What is the case?

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Samrat Chowdhery: Okay. So, see, in my article, I talk about one major development, which is that the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, their funding has been restricted, which means that every time now they spend anything in our country, they have to take a prior approval from the health ministry. Now, this is a welcome move, of course, and I'll give you a little bit of context. Last year, Bloomberg Philanthropies, which is the major funder for Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, had announced a $420 million funding for developing countries, of which India was one of the major countries. So after that, a huge amount of funding for anti-vaping propaganda, because that's the favorite for Bloomberg Philanthropies, started flowing into the country. And there was a lot of meddling in the country's tobacco policies. So there is a major tobacco conference which is held every year. And it was sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which had a lot of Indian bureaucrats. And instead of focusing on the problem, which is BDUs, which is good kind, smokeless tobacco use, it veered around vaping, which is not used by a lot of Indians, and then it's a risk reduction alternative, right? So the whole narrative or the conversation was being drawn into a different direction. So I think that could be one of the reasons the funding was restricted. We welcome that. And we hope similar action is also taken on other Bloomberg-funded groups like the union and the vital strategies, which are doing something similar in the country. We welcome the fact that there is recognition that this is a problem. This is foreign meddling into the country's tobacco policies. And we hope that it's taken to its final conclusions.

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Joanna Junak: You also mentioned that India's largest cigarette maker had paid a large donation of 11 million dollars just at the time of the vape ban. Can you tell us more about what happened and what conclusions can be drawn from this with regard to India's vape ban?

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Samrat Chowdhery: So earlier this year, the Supreme Court of the country, it came up with a major ruling to declare political funding, which was until now kept secret So it said that all the political donations in the last five years have to be put out in public. So then we came to know that IDC, which sells eight out of 10 cigarettes in a country, had donated close to $11 million to the government just before the vape ban. Now, this raises a lot of questions. First, the government has been saying that we want to eradicate tobacco use or we want to reduce number of people smoking. And then it takes such large donation from a tobacco company, which goes completely against FCTC guidelines. You know, even we are not allowed to meet some government officials, even as consumer advocates, because they cite Article 5.3. and here the government itself is taking such large donation from a tobacco company. So that is one. Second, the timing of the donation, because it was just around the time of the vape ban. So that too raises questions. Now, this is out in the open. We haven't heard anything from the government in terms of clarification. At the time of the ban, if you remember, a lot of people asked, why is the finance minister announcing a vape ban, which is health policy? So now it's becoming more and more apparent that it was a financial decision at that time, even though the government defended it at that time. But now the facts are out. So we hope that the government looks within itself, its conscience, and revisits the vape ban. Because, you know, a lot of people have been, or could have benefited from risk reduction.

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Joanna Junak: Thank you, Samrat. That's all for today. Tune in next time here on GFN.TV or on our podcast. You can also find transcriptions of each episode on the GFN TV website. Thanks for watching or listening. See you next time.