More than 100,000 unread messages from members of the public overwhelm officials at India's health ministry. This turns out to be the latest obstacle to push for tougher laws to curb smoking.
In India, use of tobacco is linked to up to 900,000 deaths a year. The government is planning to raise the minimum smoking age to 21 from 18 and also ban the sale of single cigarettes, which make up 70 percent of overall sales.
In January the Indian government asked for public suggestions before taking the proposals to parliament. The result from the public: 45,000 e-mails and more than 100,000 letters delivered by mail, in white and brown sacks stacked up in the health ministry.
Analyzing the public responses is important for the legislative process to move forward. The huge volume has left officials stumped, with some fearing that it could take as much as five months to sift through the letters. The letter-writing campaign was orchestrated by the tobacco industry to hold up the process, suspect some health officials.
"It appears to be an organized campaign as a lot of letters were photocopied and sent in same-colored envelopes from one town or village," said a health ministry official. While there is no evidence to back up such suspicions, there are signs of an organized letter-writing campaign.
Several protest e-mails were from employees of India's largest cigarette maker, ITC Ltd. A company spokesman said ITC did not ask employees to send letters. The government has vowed to read all the public suggestions.
"New tobacco laws are the need of the hour and need effective enforcement," said Monika Arora of the Framework Convention Alliance for Tobacco Control.