India to introduce biggest smoking ban

India will mark the anniversary of Gandhi's birthday tomorrow in a manner the famously ascetic Mahatma would have probably approved - by imposing the world's biggest smoking ban, reported Timeturk.

Some 1.2 billion people will be forbidden from lighting up in bars, offices, bus stands and other public places on pain of a 200 rupee (£2.40) fine, equivalent to a day's wages for many.

Health experts admit that the edict is likely to be widely flouted. India has already outlawed spitting and urinating in public, to little noticeable effect.

However, they say that urgent action is needed as a newly prosperous middle class increasingly succumbs to an epidemic of "Western-style" ailments such as lung cancer and heart disease.

The Indian Government has shrugged off complaints from cigarette companies and bar owners that it is exceeding its authority. It says that it is determined to educate a young and often illiterate population on the dangers of its bad habits.

The timing of the latest diktat appears apt: Gandhi, a teetotaller, forced the British to quit India on a diet that seldom strayed beyond goats' milk and the occasional handful of lentils.

It seems certain that the freedom fighter, who wanted his countrymen to live simple rural lives, would be aghast at how millions are migrating into sedentary city jobs, scoffing junk food and puffing cigarettes.

Exacerbated by this shift in lifestyles, heart disease alone is set to end more lives per year in India than all infectious illnesses - including diarrhoea, tuberculosis and malaria combined - by 2015, World Health Organisation figures suggest.

The Government estimates that as much as 40 per cent of India's health problems are linked to tobacco. About 250 million Indians use it. An increased rate of smoking among women combined with a surge in the popularity of chewing tobacco is of particular concern.

Dr K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, said: "Implementation will take time, but passive smoking kills and people have a right not to subject their health to risk against their wishes."

Anbumani Ramadoss, the Health Minister, who championed the smoking ban, said: "As many as 600 million people here are below 30 years of age. We consider them as the high-risk group when it comes to tobacco, alcohol, drugs use, HIV infection and junk food consumption."

This week the smoking ban survived an appeal to the Supreme Court to have it delayed. Mr Ramadoss now has his sights set on Bollywood and the depiction of smokers on screen.

The most dramatic warning signs about the nation's health have come from India's stressed-out call centre workers. The sector's employees, mostly in their 20s, command pay-packets only dreamt of by their parents but are paying for their new affluence by taking on a much greater risk of ailments such as lung cancer and strokes, experts say.

Reports of heart problems, depression, suicides and diabetes are common. One of the country's most respected companies, Infosys, a software exporter, shocked the nation when it admitted that a 25-year-old employee had died of a heart attack in 2005.

Nevertheless, hardened smokers in Bombay today seemed unperturbed. "The authorities aren't organised enough to prevent people smoking," one said. "I'll pay a bribe if they try to stop me. Or perhaps I'll just stay at home."

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