Bidis are small, thin, hand-rolled cigarettes, filled with tobacco flakes and wrapped in a tendu leaves that are tied with a cotton thread. Bidis have long been marketed as a 'natural' product, with no additives or processing. Statistics reveal that around 70 million Indians smoke these bidis. Health campaigners in India had argued that bidis can be more dangerous than normal cigarettes as they are smoked in greater quantities, with more frequent and deeper puffs. Bidis outsell their filtered, paper-bound rivals by eight to one, giving the industry's bosses a financial and political clout that critics say accounts for the recent shelving of plans for larger health warnings on packets.
Three lawmakers from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party on a parliamentary committee looking into the issue were widely condemned when they cited a lack of evidence that smoking bidis caused cancer as a reason for stalling the measure. Shyama Charan Gupta, one of the three lawmakers on the committee and who heads a company that produces one of the industry's best-selling brands, said, "There is no medical evidence that bidis cause cancer. It is misinformation created by NGOs, a few doctors and the anti-bidi lobby."
Up to 900,000 Indians die each year from causes related to tobacco use, and researchers have warned that the figure could reach 1.5 million by the end of the decade without more deterrence. A packet of 20 normal cigarettes can cost in excess of 150 rupees, but a bundle of 15 bidis can sell for as little as five rupees. Their price is kept low by favorable tax rates. Prakash C Gupta, a leading researcher into the health impact of tobacco, said, "The bidi industry has huge political clout. Bidi industrialists are in political circles at very high levels in all parties."
Most bidi smokers are poor men living in rural areas in India, but they are not alone in risking their health for the small sticks. The All India Bidi, Tobacco and Cigar Workers Federation revealed that up to 90% of the roughly 5.5 million bidi rollers are female, with the government estimating up to a quarter are children. Most of the rollers are non-smokers. But studies have shown that continuous exposure to tobacco dust, many cause respiratory diseases including tuberculosis and asthma, as well as skin and postural problems. The campaigners said, "Laws enacted in the 1960s and 70s to improve the welfare of workers only encouraged manufacturers to fragment production into smaller units to escape regulation with the added benefit of tax exemption for producers who report output of fewer than two million bidis a year."