If India's Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss and his party, the PMK, execute their plans on tobacco control successfully in Tamil Nadu, then it could be the first Indian state to become smoking-free five years from now.
Addressing the stakeholders' consultation on tobacco control Sunday evening, Ramadoss said the coming year will see the Tobacco Regulatory Authority (TRA) in place to ensure that India moves towards becoming a tobacco-free country.
"40 percent of all health problems in India is due to tobacco use," said the health minister.
India is the third largest tobacco producer (550 million kg annually) as well as the consumer in the world and earns nearly Rs. 350 billion (nearly $9 million) from tobacco products.
Every year, one million people die in the country due to tobacco-aggravated causes.
"Children begin smoking at the age of 10 and younger, and the union government spends Rs. 450 billion in treating tobacco-related diseases," he said.
In Tamil Nadu, a village named Varanavasi in Kanchipuram district already has a total ban on tobacco use.
"If Chandigarh city can ban smoking, why can't Chennai," Ramadoss asked, extracting a promise from Mayor M Subramanian that the action will be tried in this metropolis too.
Outlining an ambitious no-tobacco plan for his home state, the minister also set up a Tamil Nadu Tobacco Control Coalition and revealed at the consultation that he had personally urged the southern superstar Rajnikanth not to smoke in his films.
Rajnikanth's films have often been targeted by PMK (Pattali Makkal Katchi) cadre for their English names and for the superstar's depiction of smoking and drinking on screen.
"I personally spoke to actor Rajnikanth about the issue and he responded promptly, not doing any smoking scenes in his films," Ramdoss told the stakeholders' consultation.
"The last two of his films do not contain any shot of Rajnikanth smoking," he said.
"Haven't they been a hit? Why should actors and directors think that a film's success depends on smoking scenes," he asked.
Appealing to the popular actor Vijay this time, Ramadoss said, "My advise to Vijay is to stop depicting smoking on screen as he has huge youth following. I urge him as a Tamil and as a doctor to follow the footstep of his illustrious senior actor".
Ramadoss also had stories to tell about politicians who did not want a danger warning on tobacco products like beedis. He, however, did not reveal the names.
"Four chief ministers and 150 MPs have met me to tell me they do not want anti-smoking advertisements and labelling of products. Seven CMs wrote to me pleading for the beedi workers and one chief minister met me three times regarding this," the minister said.
"In one case of ban on smoking scene in a film, a high court judge has kept the verdict pending for more than eight months," he added.
"Are the lives of these 1.1 billion people not more valuable than the 30 lakh (three million) beedi workers' livelihood from this particular kind of work?", the minister asked.
He said the TRA will seek an increase of tax on tobacco products both at the union and state levels.
Saying that the health ministry wanted to raise the fine to Rs. 2000 (from Rs 200 per offence), Ramadoss said members of the public, NGO bodies, bus drivers and conductors, train ticket examiners, corporation and municipality officials will soon get power to fine violators of 'no smoking in public' rules.