GOA ALLEGRETTO Alexandre Moniz Barbosa
If there has been one good thing brought about by the lockdown it has been the fact that the authorities have been quite strict in implementing the Goa Prohibition of Smoking and Spitting Act, 1997. Since the enforcement of the nationwide lockdown till late last week, Goa Police had booked 7,559 cases of spitting in public places. And while that is a huge number, the menace of spitting is far from ended in the State, or for that matter anywhere else in India. This is pretty obvious in the Panjim municipal market, where the city mayor had to warn shopkeepers that if they failed to maintain clenliness and stop their customers from spitting, the city corporation would be forced to shut the market.
While Goa does have a law in place to act against smoking and spitting in public, its implementation was sorely lacking, and it is only due to the COVID-19 pandemic that the authorities have decided to be strict with those spitting and with the sale of smokeless tobacco. But, that may not be the case with the rest of the country, where chewing tobacco and spitting in public places is a common practice. Given that the practice is pretty rampant across all States, curbing it will require more than mere enforcement of exisitng laws.
Faced with the increasing number of COVID-19 cases, the Centre last week again issued a letter to States to ban the sale and use of tobacco and smokeless tobacco products as these practices lead to spitting in public places and the spread of diseases including COVID-19. A letter from the Union Health Minister to State Health Ministers, besides pointing out that smokeless tobacco users have a tendency to spit in public places, also says that this creates an unhygienic environment besides, large gatherings at retail outlets where these products are sold pose a risk of spread of COVID-19. This appeal has been made to all States, after the Rajasthan and Jharkhand governments ordered the ban to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Just as this appeal came from the Centre, in the State, the District Tobacco Control Cell, North Goa also stated that smoking tobacco is a known risk factor for respiratory infections, which increases the severity of respiratory diseases, and that smokers are more likely to develop severe disease with COVID–19 compared to non-smokers. Tobacco, the cell pointed out, is a major risk factor for non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease and diabetes, which put people with these conditions at higher risk for developing severe illness when affected by COVID-19. They added that smokers are likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 as smoking means that fingers (and possibly contaminated cigarettes) are in contact with lips, which increases the possibility of transmission of virus from hand to mouth.
These are not new facts about smoking and tobacco. It is also a fact that the State has been equipped with the ‘Goa Prohibition of Smoking and Spitting Act, 1997’, under which police and mamlatdars have been given powers to ensure its implementation and take action. But, this Act over two decades old already, is not really being implemented strictly and these practices, especially spitting ib public, continue. The reason for this is that there hasn’t been a will to implement it totally. It was only last month that the State government, during the lockdown, issued directions that the use of smokeless tobacco products be banned in the State. At that time, State Health Minister Vishwajit Rane had said that besides the exisiting anti-tobacco law, the State will take action against violators of these provisions under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, the Disaster Management Act, 2005 as well as various provisions of the Indian Penal Code 1860. We now know, that over 7,000 violations of spitting have been found and been booked. But there are more violations that go unchecked. The fact is that if the practice is not curbed at this point of time, it may never be stopped.
People in Goa – and all of India for that matter – are now moving in public places with their mouths and noses covered, which makes it difficult to smoke and spit in public. Yet, the walls of various public places – markets in particular and not just the one in Panjim but across the State – are stained by the spittle of those who chew such products, redhot evidence that the menace is real. A month ago, when Goa had banned the sale of smokeless tobacco, Herald had appealed that the ban should not be restricted to the period while the COVID-19 pandemic lasts, but be a permanent ban.
At this moment, the authorities are strict because of the pandemic and the possible spread of the virus due to spitting in public. Given past history, once the scare blows over everything could return to normal, and the authorities will go easy on those spitting in public places. The State has to consider enforcing this law strictly and doing so permanently. Today it might be attempting to restirct the spread of COVID-19, but in the months ahead, a ban on these products will also serve to keep Goan cleaners and more hygienic, and keep Goans safe from so many other diseases that are brought about by smoking.
Herald had also suggested that just as in restaurants there is a sign announcing that smoking is an offence, there could be such signs prohibiting spitting in all public places. But, as has been seen in the past weeks, what is required are not signs but the will of the authorities to act. If the Mayor of Panjim can get strict enough to threaten closure of shops in the market, can’t he be as firm at other times too? If over 7,000 persons can be fined in the space of less than two weeks, can’t the authorities find as many or more at other times? Mind you, these fines for spitting were during a lockdown, when there were few people on the streets. Imagine how rampant the practice would be at other times. It would be a pity if when normalcy returns, so would spitting in public. It has to be stopped permanently.