Authored by: Vasudev Devadasan
If you are a smoker in 2015, it may seem as though the world is against you. In India especially, there is still plenty of social stigma attached to smoking, and the government loves to reinforce this by flashing a pair of diseased lungs in your face every time you are in a theatre. This may or may not change your mind, and that’s a private choice. But when you light a smoke in public, it’s no longer private, and now the cops get to do what they do best, take your money. So what exactly are the rules around public smoking? And does anybody really care?
Public smoking is an offence under Section 4 Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003 (COTPA). What comes under a ‘public place’? Well, it’s not as bad as you think. Railway stations, bus stops, stadiums and malls are naturally off limits. But public places don’t include parking spaces, open market spaces and even parks. So the next time a cop tries to nab you for public smoking in any of these places, feel free to quote Section 3 (1) of the COTPA to him.
But suppose you just couldn’t resist the urge to spark one up in one of these ‘public’ places, and you’re unlucky enough for a cop to pass by, what’s at stake? If you actually have been smoking in one of the above mentioned places, truth is, there isn’t much you can do. They are going to issue you a ‘challan’ with a maximum fine of Rs. 200. If you pay him anything more, you are funding his wife’s jewellery.
But what if you don’t have the money on you? Or maybe you think you’ve been smart and tucked your money away, and you show the cop an empty wallet. At this point they will take down your address and send the receipt to your house. Think, you can outsmart by writing the wrong address? Think again, because they are going to ask you for identification with address proof, and a smart cop will do this after he makes you write down your address to see if you are trying to con him. But maybe you are incredibly unlucky (or an agent of a clandestine service) and have no identification on you. Now you are in trouble, because under Section 25 (i) of the COPPA, the police are authorised to detain you and produce you before a magistrate if you fail to produce identification after refusing to pay the fine. Running your mouth off to the cop isn’t going to help either, because he’s liable to charge you under Section 186 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for ‘obstruction of justice’.
The COTPA provides for various rules with regards to hotels, restaurants and educational institutions. But at the end of the day, your decision on whether or not to smoke in public is going to be largely based on what you see others doing. This is because the COTPA is unevenly enforced, and in some places, not enforced at all. But you now know the rules and which side of them you are on is up to you.
Ultimately, if you don’t want to get into trouble, the answer is simple. Don’t be reckless. Find a spot where you aren’t likely to trouble anybody, and take a smoke. Remember, even if you do get caught and don’t have any cash on you, an officer can’t detain you if you provide him with valid address proof, and the fine can then be paid at a later date.