How 21 hamlets of Ramanagara in Karnataka earned the title of ‘tobacco-free villages’

The National Tobacco Control Programme was successfully implemented in 21 villages of Ramanagara taluk and lauded at Mantana 2023.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Mar 20, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdatedMar 20, 2023 | 9:00 AM

National Tobacco Control Program was successfully implemented in Sugganahalli village panchayat of Ramanagara taluk and district, which was appreciated at Mantana 2023. (Supplied)

With a combined population of 8,514 people, 21 hamlets of a taluk in Ramanagara — just 50 km from Bengaluru — have been declared as “tobacco-free villages”.

“We neither buy nor smoke or chew tobacco in our village. It wasn’t easy, but we did it. We are proud to be called a tobacco-free village,” smiled Madappa from the Rampura village, one of the 21 declared tobacco-free.

The Ramanagara District Anti-Tobacco Cell on Thursday, 16 March, presented this fascinating success story from 21 villages of the Sugganahalli village panchayat, Ramanagara taluk and district at the state-level review of the National Tobacco Control Programme (NTCP) — “Mantana 2023”.

Mantana is organised by the State Anti-Tobacco Cell from the Department of Health and Family Welfare in Bengaluru.

Some of the villages include Guddadahalli, Dommachanahalli, Kaggalahalli, Chennapuradoddi, and Lakkasandra.

Slowly-built enthusiasm

Speaking to South First, 32-year-old Sandeep from the Sugganahalli village said a team of officers visited their village panchayat in 2019 to create awareness about the harmful effects of tobacco use.

The panchayat development officer (PDO) then took extra interest in it and said that he would be glad to implement the regulations and create awareness.

“He expressed interest in making our village a tobacco-free one. We were not really for it; we were initially hesitant. Many elderly men were used to smoking beedi for several years, and some youngsters settled outside our village in cities like Bengaluru. Tobacco was freely available and was also a good business in our village,” explained Sandeep, who is a farmer.

Though Sandeep himself was not a smoker, his friends and relatives were. But the panchayat officer was firm and the villagers were eventually convinced about its ill effects.

The officials from the District Tobacco Control (DTC) Cell were very impressed with the villagers’ enthusiasm and acceptance in trying to make their village tobacco-free.

Chandrashekar AG, a social worker with the DTC Cell in Ramanagara, told South First, “We were impressed when the PDO expressed interest in extending the programme to all the 21 villages in this taluk. We began our journey then.”

Also read: How Bengaluru bagged $150,000 for tobacco control efforts

Not a simple feat to achieve

Sandeep explained that it was not an easy process. “The elderly men objected. Vendors didn’t acquiesce. They said that they would lose out on business. Several people experienced mood swings, irritation, and withdrawal symptoms when they tried to quit,” he recalled.

Proud moment when the village was declared a tobacco-free village. (Supplied)

The proud moment when the village was declared a tobacco-free village. (Supplied)

Meanwhile, the officials, after preliminary meetings in villages, offered counselling to people and also directed them to the local public health centres, where several pulmonary-related tests and psychological counselling sessions were conducted.

Target groups were created. The first ones to be targeted were the vendors.

“The reason we chose them was that it was from them that the tobacco was being bought by the villagers. So, we began by creating awareness among vendors and asking them to think of alternate products to sell instead of tobacco, including gutkha,” explained Chandrashekar.

While a majority of the vendors agreed and even signed handwritten letters vowing that they would not sell any tobacco products in their shops, nearly 40 percent of them refused to do so.

“For those who continued to sell, we had to counsel them separately. We even took the help of their families, including women and children,” the social worker added.

Counselling one at a time

The functional DTC Cell, in order to implement the National Tobacco Control Programme at the grassroot level, literally went door-to-door campaigning and advocating for a “tobacco-free village”.

After vendors, the officials made a list of every member of every household who consumed tobacco. From young to old, everyone’s names were included.

“These people were counselled with the help of women and children in the village. However, some of them still continued to gather below the usual banyan tree — a regular smoking spot. We took the help of the police and conducted raids, and even fined such people,” said Chandrashekar.

Sandeep added that the fear of being fined led to many of them stopping smoking in public.

“While a majority of the vendors quit selling tobacco products, some continued. As a result, a few of those who had stopped began selling tobacco again. Some questioned our motives,” explained Sandeep.

However, the women and children played a major role, said the officials.

They not only motivated the men in their families, but the children were also encouraged to report to their schools if any family member was using tobacco products secretively.

“The children performed several street plays, and forced their relatives and family members to throw that beedi pack away. They made them take vows. All possible efforts were made until the relatives actually gave up,” explained Chandrashekar.

Also read: Does tobacco cause cancer in all? HCG study aims to find the answer

Covid-19 played spoilsport

While the continuous effort, counselling, and health camps had convinced the people of all 21 villages to give up tobacco products, some villages went back to smoking and using tobacco products when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“While people did fear the ill effects of tobacco use even during the pandemic, many of them — due to stress — and vendors — due to business loss — began selling the products again. Even officials took a back seat in visiting the villages. Panchayat members changed, and the scenario was very different,” recalled Chandrashekar.

However, the officials did not give up, and encouraging members like Dr Vishal Rao, a head and neck surgeon and oncologist at HCG Hospital, and Prabhakar S from the state anti-tobacco cell to visit the villages again in 2021.

By then, the schools had reopened, and the officials began to campaign again. Several villagers from Bengaluru had returned to their hometowns, making it difficult for the others to quit tobacco.

“But we didn’t give up. As a majority of them were already convinced and motivated to earn that ‘tobacco-free village’ title, they motivated others and even fought with a few to ensure this was implemented,” said Chandrashekar.

Boards to motivate them

Boards declaring offices as "tobacco-free office" at one of the villages in the Ramanagara district. (Supplied)

Boards declaring offices as “tobacco-free office” at one of the villages in the Ramanagara district. (Supplied)

The officials came up with the idea of putting up boards — “tobacco-free home”, “tobacco-free school”, “tobacco-free office”, “tobacco-free panchayat” — to show appreciation for the efforts being made. These boards motivated even more people in the villages.

By May 2022, the villages rid themselves of tobacco, and convinced the cell to declare their villages a “tobacco-free village”. A huge celebration was arranged to celebrate this achievement.

Even now, these villagers do not allow outsiders or villagers themselves to bring tobacco products into the village.

“You can visit not just my village but all the 21 villages and find no one selling, buying, or using tobacco products. We are proud that our villagers have made this possible,” said Sandeep proudly.

“Even when those who come from Bengaluru or any other place smoke in secret, we inform the officials. We tell them that our village has made a name for itself nationally, and we don’t want to give it up,” he concluded.

Also read: Tamil Nadu to appeal HC order banning tobacco products

Efforts appreciated

At the Mantana event, which was organised by the state tobacco control cell, the Bengaluru Directorate of Health and Family Welfare Services — in collaboration with the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (popularly known as the Union) — praised the state’s efforts for the implementation of NTCP in India.

Presentation explaining the efforts put in by district anti tobacco cell being explained at Mantana held on Friday at Nimhans Convention Centre in Bengaluru.

Presentation explaining the efforts put in by the district anti-tobacco cell at Mantana held on Friday at Nimhans Convention Centre in Bengaluru. (Supplied)

“Each District Tobacco Control Cell has its unique contribution to the tobacco control programme — whether it is the implementation of tobacco-free educational institutions, tobacco-free offices, tobacco-free villages, tobacco vendor licensing or implementing the WHO FCTC Article 5.3 policy guidelines. Each district has built its own success story which needs to be told and shared with others,” said Prabhakar at the event.

National Health Mission Director Naveen Bhat, who also attended the event, praised the efforts of the state tobacco control programme and the Union for organising this event and giving a platform to the district team to share their best practices.

There were 35 stalls to exhibit the best practices of DTC Cells from all 31 districts of Karnataka.

Also Read: Do pictorial warnings on cigarette/tobacco products actually work?