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India Stomps on Tobacco Abroad, Drags Feet on Pictorial Warnings at Home

India Stomps on Tobacco Abroad, Drags Feet on Pictorial Warnings at Home

Despite the decision to make it mandatory for pictorial warnings to cover 85% of cigarette and beedi packaging, the tobacco lobby continues to have its way over the Modi government


New Delhi: India may have pledged to take hard-hitting measures to reduce the use of tobacco at a regional meeting of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Timor-Leste but here at home it continues to welch on its promise to make it mandatory for pictorial warnings to cover 85% of cigarette and beedi packs –  thanks to resistance by the tobacco lobby.

Tobacco kills 150 people every hour in the WHO South-East Asia Region. Concerned at the unacceptably high levels of tobacco consumption, health ministers from 11 countries signed a declaration at the ongoing 68th Regional Committee Meeting of the WHO pledging to accelerate stringent measures to reduce tobacco use.

Over 2.5 million teenagers in India smoke everyday and 112 people die of tobacco-related causes every hour – which is approximately a million people every year.

In 2014, the Health and Family Welfare Ministry had announced that India would adopt graphic warnings covering 85% of tobacco packs as against the present requirement 40%. The new norm was to be enforced from April 1 this year. Large graphics warnings and a well planned campaign are shown to be effective in creating awareness about the adverse impact of tobacco on health and are known to discourage smoking.

However, the proposal had to be shelved just a few days before it was due to be implemented in the wake of an interim report of a Committee on Subordinate Legislation recommending that the October 2014 notification be kept in abeyance. The committee claimed there was no Indian study to confirm tobacco use led to cancer and also cited the adverse impact the 85% rule would have on the livelihood of people involved in the tobacco industry. The committee, headed by BJP MP Dilipkumar Mansukhlal Gandhi, examined the provisions of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003.

Another committee member, Shyam Charan Gupta, was also in agreement with Gandhi. Gupta, MP from Allahabad, is said to be in the beedi business. This direct conflict of interest had prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to say MPs should not be included in committees where they have a direct conflict of interest. When the controversy arose over the committee’s claims, the government, in damage control mode, let it be known that Modi had asked the Health ministry to increase the size of the pictorial warning from 40% 60 60-65%.

However, even this norm – which represents an unexplained dilution of the 85% rule formulated by Union Health minister Harsh Vardhan shortly before he was moved out of the job – has not been implemented so far.

Meanwhile, the Dili Declaration calls for tougher actions for tobacco control and prevention including equally taxing all tobacco products, banning tobacco advertisements, enforcing pictorial warning on cigarette packs and implementing ban on public smoking,

India’s reluctance to do more not only flies in the face of its own guidelines but also the recommendations of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. In the region, many countries have begun increasing the size of the pictorial warning on tobacco products. In Nepal, the pictorial warning covers 90% and in Thailand 85% of cigarette packs. Maldives and Nepal have also banned all tobacco advertising.

According to WHO, tobacco kills 1.3 million people in the region every year. This includes people who have never used tobacco themselves, but were exposed to second hand and third hand tobacco effects. The Region is home to 25% of the world’s smokers and 90% of the world’s smokeless tobacco users, about 246 million and 290 million people respectively. The prevalence of different types of smokeless tobacco is on the rise – which is chewed, or sucked, snuffed orally or nasally, sipped or gargled, or applied to teeth and gums. Tobacco use has been identified as one of the major risk factors for serious diseases such as lung disease, heart disease, and cancer.

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