Pan masala ad and the social responsibility of Indian film icon Amitabh Bachchan

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

Jagdish Rattanani Oct 01, 2021
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Amitabh Bachchan and pan masala

“The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” wrote Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman in The New York Times Magazine of Sep. 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 will stand up today to say that his/her only goal is to increase (read maximize) profits, even if that is what many businesses tend to do. But this is precisely what India’s iconic film actor Amitabh Bachchan has said, almost putting it in as many words.

To an angry questioner on social media, who asked why the celebrated Indian film star endorsed as undesirable a product as paan masala (a mixture of chopped areca nut, lime and other ingredients, and sometimes including tobacco for addictive chewing), 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.

"If some people are getting benefits from an industry, we should not think as to 'why am I getting associated with it?' If it is an industry, then we too should think of it as our industry. Now, you may think that I should not be doing it, but I get paid for it.

“In our business, there are a number of people who are workers and in a way, they too get work and some money,” the Big B – as Bachchan is fondly called – wrote on Facebook. 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 granddaughter – 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 will 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 raises the question as to whether Bachchan is overdelivering on his contract by virtually arguing like the gutka (a chewing tobacco preparation made of crushed areca nut, tobacco, catechu, paraffin wax, slaked lime and sweet or savory flavorings, in India, Pakistan, other Asian countries and North America) kings and paan masala magnates. It is this cozy set that makes 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 harmful paan masala business

The annual sales of paan masala are in the region of Rs. 45,000 crores (USD 6 billion), according to the IMARC Grou, a market research company. One report said a paan masala group had donated Rs. 200 crores (over USD 25 million) to a political party, an indicator of the amount of profit 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 has taken place 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 percent of oral cancers in India are attributable to areca nut/tobacco chewing, and an additional 50 percent to the combined use of areca nut/tobacco chewing and smoking.

They note that until recently, the tobacco component in paan (betel leaf) 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 consistent growth in sales, backed by aggressive marketing efforts. The large mix of brands, packages, tins and other stock-keeping units (SKUs), with a mix of ingredients that are multiple and varied, means that we have an active market push to spread cancer.

Bachchan needs to rethink

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 – I have my mother with me) is immortalized in the film. Millions remember it to this day. It is Bachchan who forgot the line.

The on-screen star can become a real-life hero if he withdraws from the tobacco 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, Mumbai. The views expressed are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press email: editor@thebillionpress.org)