Tackling beedi must be significant part of public health agenda

Wednesday, 30 October 2019 00:09 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Ferni Wickremasinghe

Sri Lanka has made further steady progress on the global health index ranking 73rd in the world and the clear leader the South Asian region. This is the result of policy and action taken in the early days with respect to public health, and corrective efforts and measures taken in recent times to combat the growth in Non-Communicable Diseases.

Smoking related harm formed a large part of deaths and disease in Sri Lanka over the years, but the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol says they have been somewhat successful in addressing the problem with smoking prevalence down to 20% now. However, officials estimate that 18,000 persons still die annually in Sri Lanka due to smoking related harm, and that further steps need to be taken to reduce that number. 

Price has been the pivotal factor in controlling cigarette smoking, as several targeted price increases over the past five years have rendered cigarettes in Sri Lanka amongst the most expensive in the world. However, the Authority reports that 20% of smokers in Sri Lanka smoke beedi, and this segment is often left out during programs or efforts targeting smoking. 

Beedi was a cottage industry, and this coarse product is regarded to be smoked by the poorer and much older segments of society with a single stick priced as low as Rs. 5 in most parts of the country. But this status quo is changing, and this is evidenced by a number of real factors present before us. 

On one hand are the growing number of reports from the Sri Lanka Navy, the Sri Lanka Police and the Narcotics Bureau on the detection of Tendu leaves being smuggled across the Palk Strait from India. Tendu leaves are used to manufacture beedi, and form the outer cover encasing the tobacco within. According to reports filed in the press from the security agencies, over 7,000 kilograms of Tendu leaf have already been caught smuggled from India this year. This is an unprecedented growth in smuggling of Tendu leaves for manufacturing beedi in comparison to previous years, pointing to a sudden spike in interest for beedi. 

Last year, we had the opportunity to engage with a number of beedi manufacturers, and they revealed that a kilogram of Tendu leaves yield 3,000 regular-sized beedi sticks. Accordingly, 21 million beedi sticks would have been manufactured from 7,000kgs of smuggled Tendu leaf with a market value of Rs. 105 million. 

Secondly, during our engagement with some of the villagers producing beedis, we came across three sub-contracted manufacturers in one locality, each employing 25 women on average to roll beedis. Working six days a week, they target to roll 1,000 beedi sticks a day to earn 80 cents a stick. Accordingly, these three subcontractors produce on average two million beedis a month, worth Rs. 10 million.  There are over 500 licenses issued by the Government in Sri Lanka for manufacturing beedi, and an estimated 25,000 families engaged with the beedi trade islandwide. A conservative estimate based on the numbers above points to over two billion sticks produced annually. However, these figures are based on a study conducted in 2017, with figures provided by manufacturers, sub-contractors and employees in seven provinces. Considering the influx of smuggled Tendu leaves as evidenced by the detections being reported since 2018, it is likely that this figure would have increased significantly since then. 

Thirdly, whilst officials have been able to dissuade any shopkeepers from selling cigarettes, many of these shops still sell beedi. This was evidenced in the sacred townships of Anuradhapura and Kataragama amongst others. In addition, shopkeepers revealed that some youth had switched to smoking beedi due to the price pressures, as beedi presents an almost 90% price advantage over a cigarette.  Accordingly, it is imperative that the government and its public health machinery consider beedi seriously as part of their programs to combat smoking in Sri Lanka. Beedi constitute the same degree of harm to human health as cigarettes and must therefore not be neglected or ignored under any condition. There is a significant amount of public wealth spent on beedi annually, and there is a significant amount of money to be saved for public and government by addressing this issue.