Is Amitabh Bachchan right in promoting Paan Masala?

Some very famous seem unconcerned about issues of ordinary citizens, blind to the acts of activism from other stars and are comfortable with sending message that making money is a right, whatever cost

Is Amitabh Bachchan right in promoting Paan Masala?

Jagdish Rattanani

The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” wrote the Nobel prize winning economist Milton Friedman in The New York Times Magazine of September 13, 1970, a piece that has remained one of the most cited of all times.

The world has moved on since then, and Friedman has been resoundingly debunked by many a scholar, activist and leader. No one in business stands up today to say that their only goal is to increase (read maximise) profits, even if that is what many businesses still tend to do. But this is precisely what Amitabh Bachchan has said, almost putting it in as many words.

To an angry questioner on social media, who asked why has this celebrated Hindi film star endorsed as undesirable a product as paan masala, Bachchan said he was paid to do it. The beauty of Bachchan is that he is ever so polite, calm and friendly, and he keeps this tone as he goes for the jugular in this case. This is a business that benefits many people, he goes on, and so I think of my business, too, and I get money for it, and so do the film industry workers. Plain and simple – case closed!

The exchange and the controversy that has ensued– one of the later comments asked Bachchan if he’ll offer the advertised brand to his grand-daughter–has the unfortunate effect of promoting the ad and the brand.

But the opprobrium already heaped on Bachchan in the few days since the exchange between him and his questioning fan is a healthy indicator of how ordinary citizens hold these icons to account for their actions.

The simplistic argument that any business that does good to some people is good enough to support is Bachchan overdelivering on his contract by virtually arguing like the gutka kings and paan masala magnates.

It is this cosy set who make the single point case that any ban on their carcinogenic produce, which ironically is classified as a food product in India, would mean loss of jobs at factories and up and down the supply and delivery chains. That is a concern that the government must contend with; it is not something that Bachchan can take refuge under.

The annual sales of paan masala are in the region of Rs. 45,000 crore, according to the IMARC group, a market research company. One report said a paan masala group had donated Rs. 200 crore to a political party, an indicator of the amount of profits in the business of selling toxicity, and just how much is spent to buy influence. A cursory check will show that many paan masala producers have been booked for excise violations that run into crores.

All of this when independent indicators have shown paan masala to be harmful to the health of consumers. A report on tobacco control in India on the website of the ministry of health and family welfare notes that oral submucous fibrosis (OSMF), which is a pre-cancerous condition, is emerging as a new epidemic, especially among the youth.

It said: “The dramatic increase in OSMF among young people in India has been attributed to chewing gutka and paan masala.” The largest component of tobacco consumption in India is the chewed variety, which includes paan masala. Even if a particular packet of paan masala does not contain tobacco, it cultivates the addiction of chewing on areca nut and other stimulants and tannins, and it is but a matter of time for tobacco to be thrown in the mix.

Researchers Jyotsna Changrani and Francesca Gany note that approximately 30% of oral cancers in India are attributable to areca nut/tobacco chewing, and an additional 50% to the combined use of areca nut/tobacco chewing and smoking. They note that until recently, the tobacco component in paan and gutka was impugned as the sole cause for oral cancer. However, recently, areca nut (betel nut, a fruit of the Areca catechu tree) has been shown to be an independent carcinogen responsible for oral cancer, and areca nut with tobacco causes oral cancer, cancer of the pharynx, and cancer of the esophagus in humans.

What is worse, paan masala is a relatively recent addition to the stable. It was barely three decades ago that this product came to the market and has since then shown a consistent growth in sales, backed by aggressive marketing efforts. The large mix of brands, packages, tins and other SKUs, with a mix of ingredients that are as multiple and varied, means that we have an active market push to spread cancer.

Against the backdrop of India being the second largest tobacco consumer in the world, Amitabh Bachchan can rest assured that he has used the affection and charity of the people and his consequent celebrity status to take more lives than the jobs he has saved. This is the immediate damage from the immediate event that has caused the issue to blow up.

There is a larger problem when Bachchan says, effectively, that this is a legitimate business and he is entitled to promote it and make his money from that promotion. The argument presupposes, quite erroneously, that anything that passes the test of legality meets the needs of morality.

It is insensitive to the rising tide of anger among citizens, who see the super-rich and very famous unconcerned about the issues of ordinary citizens. It is blind to some illustrious acts of activism from other stars. And it sends the message that making money is a right, whatever the cost.

The last is a problem akin to Bachchan’s famous dialogue in the film Deewar, when he asks his estranged brother and police officer: "I have property, money in the bank, a bungalow and a car…What have you got?”

The answer from his brother (mere paas maa hai) is immortalised in the film. Millions remember it to this day. It is Bachchan who forgot his lines.

That on-screen star can become a real-life hero if he withdraws from the ad, calls out paan masala as harmful to human health and triggers a movement within Bollywood to protect the health and rights of consumers.

Bachchan can do it. But will he?

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)

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