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Smoking is a public health issue in India, with 100 million adults using products such as cigarettes and beedis. One tool the government has is taxes. But a study from Karnataka shows taxes are uneven and too low to limit public consumption of tobacco. Simplifying and raising taxes, and applying existing laws strictly, can better help restrict tobacco use.

The study’s authors, Shreelata Rao Seshadri of Azim Premji University and others, interviewed 23 people in bureaucracy, research and advocacy for their analysis. They find that widely-used products such as beedis attract lower taxes than cigarettes. People who use beedis and chew tobacco form 85% of tobacco users, but contribute only 15% of tobacco taxes, while the rest is paid by cigarette users.

Ever since the Centre introduced Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 2017, states haven't been free to levy tobacco taxes. Moreover, cigarettes are taxed at 28%, too low to have any impact. Suggestions to solve this include having a separate higher rate on cigarettes—such as 70% of the retail price, or an additional excise duty.

But in Karnataka, raising taxes is a challenge as it is a tobacco-producing state with a strong farmer lobby. Yet, Karnataka reports and books the most violations in India of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA).

COTPA came into force in 2004 with provisions on restricting tobacco sales, advertising and protecting minors. In Karnataka, agencies in law enforcement, health, and education participated in implementing COTPA. At the district level, committees chaired by the district collector helped enforce the Act. An app was developed for citizens to upload photographs of violators.

The efficient use of the existing law shows that even though Karnataka couldn’t use taxes effectively to limit tobacco use, the strict enforcement of COTPA has made up for it.

Also read: “‘You cannot touch taxes easily’: making the case for tobacco taxation in India"

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