The Karnataka health and family welfare department as part of its latest initiative to promote health welfare measures for the state citizens is thinking of partnering with a tobacco major to build super speciality government hospitals. This has ignited a debate, with public health activists calling it a case of conflict of interest.
In an e-mail dated April 18, 2017, Shalini Rajneesh, principal secretary, health and family welfare department, wrote to Anil Rajput, senior vice president, corporate affairs, ITC Limited, elucidating the Karnataka's government's proposal to construct five super specialty hospitals and the chance for private companies to collaborate with the government in the project.
A copy of the communication, available with TOI says, "As discussed, we are planning to set up five super specialty hospitals in five districts of Karnataka. We plan to build the hospital and invite PPP partners to come with doctors and equipment to run the hospital. The government will pay for the patients as per package costs pre-decided with a group of doctors both from the government and private sector... May I request you to put up this proposal before the ITC board, as early as possible?"
Public health activists have called the attempt a case of conflict of interest. "Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control FCTC (UN Treaty fully signed and ratified by India) discourages any partnerships or interactions of government officials (involved in tobacco-related issues) and the tobacco industry, unless strictly for regulatory purposes," said an activist, on the condition of anonymity.
Anti-corruption activist Ravi Krishna Reddy said, "Such partnerships allow the tobacco industry to make inroads into the health sector and influence government decisions.
The Karnataka government itself, recognizing WHO guidelines, issued a circular in the past that government and elected officers shall not participate in tobacco industry related events. The recent move by the Karnataka health department to partner a tobacco firm now is a breach of public trust and a case of conflict of interest - as the tobacco firm gains close access to decision making authorities dealing with tobacco control."
Supreme Court advocate KV Dhananjay said that over 10 lakh people in India die because of smoking. "There cannot be a more shameful act on the part of the Karnataka government. It is beyond my comprehension how the state government could ask a tobacco firm to build hospitals in partnership with the government to treat people stricken with cancer.
Also, the enforcement of various tobacco control measures would be defeated if the very tobacco companies that should be strictly regulated also become financial partners with the government. There are other problematic aspects to such communications partnerships.
The state government is mandated to do things to reduce tobacco use in society. In fact, the principal secretary herself is the chair of the state anti-tobacco cell."Health activists also say that CSR by the tobacco industry is another problematic feature. "WHO clearly denounces CSR by the tobacco industry. How can any activities be termed `socially responsible' when the core operations of the industry are against the social outcome - production of lethal products known to kill lakhs of Indians every year," said an activist.