The Ministry of Health said today that it would look to enforce the ban, taking note of the ruling that said that these products are food and as per the law it is illegal to mix harmful materials like tobacco in food.
“We are in the process of sending a notification to states. We are awaiting a final ruling in the matter,” said additional secretary K Desairaju.
“Our stand is that if gutkha is food and as per the Food Safety and Standards Act it is illegal to mix harmful things in food, then tobacco and zarda, known harmful items, should not be mixed in food. This is what we will tell the states,” he said.
Desairaju however conceded that it is really a question of law in which the Supreme Court has the final word, which is currently listening to appeals from manufacturers of gutkha and others in this regard.
Ban should have come earlier
India put in force last year the Food Safety and Standards Act, under which the government had notified a complete ban on tobacco chewing products and gutkha by including a clause, which said that tobacco and nicotine couldn't be used as ingredients in any food products.
However, this was almost immediately challenged by manufactures of gutkha and tobacco chewing products in the country in several high courts across the country, saying that these products could not be treated as food.
The matter ultimately reached the Supreme Court of India, which ruled via an order in late 2010 that since pan masala, supari and gutkha are eaten for taste and nourishment, they are all food within the meaning of food safety act.
In addition, the highest judicial body also ruled that under the act, the authority to ban an article of food or an article used as ingredient of food, on the grounds that it is injurious to health, belongs to the government of India.
In effect, with gutkha and chewing tobacco products having been classified as “food”, and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) becoming a body with legal enforcement powers, these products were effectively banned.
But political wrangles remain
However, the FSSAI has yet to send out any order on the ban of gutkha in India, as it is caught in a mangle of legal and political interests.
But top gutkha manufacturers in the country have not curtailed the production of these products as the FSSAI has yet to notify them of the ban.
The gutkha and tobacco chewing products industry in India has already been reeling with losses due to policies such as the ban on plastic sachets for packaging of these products that came into force this year.
However, they have privately told media sources that because the industry is a large employer and gutkha is a largely consumed stimulant in rural India, which represents a huge vote bank, a ban would not be enforced by the government.