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Tobacco companies are advertising products around educational institutions and intentionally targeting children in India, a recent study found.

Monitoring advertising across 20 cities, the researchers detail the methods through which the tobacco industry has been flouting rules, particularly by selling to vulnerable children and youngsters.

Companies have been advertising tobacco products through posters and seizing upon the ability to sell products at shops near schools, along with low prices and the sale of single cigarettes.

Indian law prohibits the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18 and bans stores from selling tobacco products within 100 yards of any educational institution.

State governments provide licenses to tobacco shops under the condition “that the shops authorized for selling tobacco products cannot sell any non-tobacco product such as toffees, candies, chips, biscuits, soft drinks, etc., which are essentially meant for children,” said Ashwini Choubey, the minister of state for health and family welfare.

But poor enforcement of laws and a lack of checks in place have enabled the illegal sale of tobacco near schools, experts say.

Implementation of Indian laws on tobacco consumption is extremely poor, as agencies have neither the capacity nor the will to do so, said Hemant Upadhyay, an adviser with the voluntary action group Consumer VOICE.

The research was carried out by Consumer VOICE and the Voluntary Health Association of India over a month in 2017 across six states.

A total of 243 schools were visited, and the report says street vendors were the most common location for the sale of tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco and cigarettes.

“Vendors display tobacco products in ways that are appealing to children and youth. 91% of displays were at 1 meter – a child’s eye level. An estimated 54% of the points of sale had no visible health warning; and 90% of displays were beside candy, sweets and toys – items marketed to children,” the report says.

Falling behind the rest

India has been faltering in the global race to reduce tobacco use, in terms of production as well as consumption.

With an agricultural industry heavily dependent on the tobacco crop, the Indian government is finding it difficult to wean farmers off it. Annual tobacco production in the country is around 800 million kilograms (881,849 US tons), according to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

India is the second largest exporter of tobacco in the world, according to the India Brand Equity Foundation, earning about $770 million in foreign exchange in 2017.

In India, 28.6% of people older than 15 and about 15% of children 13 to 15 consumed some form of tobacco in 2018, according to the World Health Organization.

In 2016, almost 13% of deaths in the country were from tobacco-related causes, according to the Tobacco Atlas.

India has been trying to enforce stricter laws to reduce the growing population of smokers or tobacco chewers, and most smokeless tobacco products have been banned.

The government has been cracking down on consumption by increasing taxes, placing pictorial warnings on cigarette packs, banning e-cigarettes in multiple states and spreading awareness on the harmful effects of tobacco.

And there has been some progress.

According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, prevalence of tobacco use dropped from 34.6% in 2009-10 to 28.6% in 2016-17, and 62% of cigarette smokers considered quitting because of the warning labels.

By contrast, countries like the United States have seen a remarkable drop in the number of smokers. There, cigarette smoking dropped to 14% in 2017 from almost 40% in the mid-1960s, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In India, a government report says, tobacco use among 15- to 17-year-olds dropped to 4% in 2017 from 10% in 2010.

The impact of poor enforcement

Tobacco kills more than 1 million people each year in India, according to WHO.

According to the Indian government, the average initiation age for smoking is 18.9 years. In the United States, the average age is 15.3, and in Europe, it peaks at 16 for boys and 15 among girls.

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“initiation of tobacco has reduced between the age of 18 and 22, which indicated that we have made good progress,” Consumer VOICE CEO Ashim Sanyal said.

But the numbers may rise if the violation of Indian laws continues, Sanyal said, adding that local authorities must act.