A beedi (/ˈbiːdiː/; from Hindi: बीड़ी; also spelled bidi or biri) is a thin, Indian cigarette filled with tobacco flake and wrapped in a tendu or possibly even Piliostigma racemosum leaf tied with a string at one end. The name is derived from the Marwari word beeda—a mixture of betel nuts, herbs, and spices wrapped in a leaf.
A traditional method of tobacco use throughout South Asia and parts of the Middle East, today beedies are popular and inexpensive in India. There, beedi consumption outpaces that of conventional cigarettes and these tobacco-filled leaves deliver more nicotine, carbon monoxide, and tar and carry a greater risk of oral cancers. Beedies accounted for 48% of Indian tobacco consumption in 2008. As with many other types of smoking, beedis increase the risk of certain kinds of cancers, heart disease, and lung disease. They may also be more harmful than other forms of tobacco consumption.
History of the beedi
Indian tobacco cultivation began in the late 17th century, and beedies were first created in Gujarat when tobacco workers took left-over tobacco and rolled it in leaves. Initially the leaf used was kachnar. In 1899, during the Gujarat famine, brothers Mohanlal Hargovindas Patel migrated to Jabalpur region as railway contractors. They discovered that the local tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) leaves are ideal for wrapping the tobacco and founded the beedi rolling factories locally. The first trademark was registered by Haribhai Desai of Bombay (using kachnar leaves) 1901, and Mohanlal and Hargovindas obtained their trademark in 1902 for tendu-rolled beedi.
The commercial Indian beedi industry saw rapid growth during the 1930s probably driven by an expansion of tobacco cultivation at the time but also helped by Gandhi’s support of Indian industry and Indian products. Perhaps due to this, educated classes in India grew to prefer beedies to cigarettes although this is no longer the case. Muslim leaders, calling cigarettes foreign products, have also endorsed beedies at times.
By the middle of the 20th century beedi manufacture had grown into a highly competitive industry. This stage of commercial production—at the height of the beedi’s popularity—saw the creation of many new beedi brands as well as beedi factories employing upwards of one hundred, primarily male, beedi rollers.
Factory-based beedi production declined as a result of increased regulation during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, and beedi-making became a cottage industry with a home-based women workforce predominantly employed only in the beedi rolling. In contrast, males continue to be employed in other aspects of beedi production.
Unlike cigarettes, beedies must be puffed frequently to keep them lit, and doing so requires effort.
Poor man’s cigarette
Beedi smoking tends to be associated with a lower social standing, and these tobacco-filled leaves are inexpensive, when compared to regular cigarettes. Those with a high social standing who do smoke beedies often do so out of the public eye.
Beedies in the United States
In the United States, beedies are treated like conventional cigarettes. They are taxed at the same rates, are required to have a tax stamp, and must carry the Surgeon General’s warning. However, a study done in San Francisco showed that about four in ten packs of beedies did not contain the required warning label and seven in ten did not carry the tax stamp. 2006 statistics on beedi usage shows that 2.9% of high school students in the United States take part in beedi smoking compared to 1.4% of those aged 18 to 24.
Some beedies are flavoured. Both Canada and the US have banned flavoured cigarettes.
Factory workers hand cut the leaves using scissors and a metal stencil guide. After cutting a sufficient number of wrappers, they will move on to roll approximately 1,000 beedies each per day.
Over 3 million Indians are employed in the manufacture of beedies, a cottage industry that is typically done by women in their homes.
Workers roll an average of 500–1000 beedies per day, handling 225–450 grams (7.9–15.9 oz) of tobacco flake. Studies have shown that cotinine levels in the bodily fluids of beedi workers are elevated even among those who do not use tobacco.
The production of beedies is also popular in Bangladesh. According to the 2014 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor published by the Bureau of International Labor Affairs, the informal sector in these countries employs underage children in the production of beedies “in response to consumer preferences”.
Tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) leaves make excellent wrappers, and the success of the beedi is due, in part, to this leaf. The leaves are in abundance shortly after the tobacco crop is cured and so are ready to be used in beedi manufacture. Collected in the summer and made into bundles, the leaves are dried in the sun for three to six days before being used as wrappers.