Published On : Thu, May 5th, 2016

Are ‘Bigger’ health hazard warnings enough to fight tobacco induced diseases and create awareness?

Tobacco cigarette
Tobacco is the only available legal product that kills, causing the deaths every six seconds. According to a disturbing report from the World Health Organization (WHO) half of the current users will eventually die of tobacco-related diseases like cancers, heart disease and stroke amongst others.

The Indian tobacco industry’s diaspora has been raising a hue and cry against the decision to have pictorial warnings covering 85% of cigarette/bidi packaging. They are calling the warnings a global conspiracy theorizing the impact it will have on the livelihoods of tobacco farmers. This is merely a wily effort to evoke public sympathy and mislead the government. The big moneymakers are using power of their bucks to generate a positive note for themselves. The sole objective of this crusade are to cloak the tobacco industry’s deep commercial interests in not having these pictorial warnings cover 85% off the package on both sides of tobacco packs.

From public interest perspective, it is one of the best, cheapest and most effective mediums to spread knowledge about the life-threatening illnesses which befall tobacco addicts, a large strata of which in our country are illiterate or the youth that connects it be a part of modern metropolitan culture which is filled with glitz and glamour.

The honorable Supreme Court has laudably refused to shrink the size of pictorial health warnings on cigarette and tobacco packets and asked manufacturers to abide by a Health Ministry notification on increasing the size of the warning messages to 85 per cent from the current 20 per cent of the principal display area on packets.

Does it really hurt the farmers most? Or…
Let’s take a comparative look at how tobacco farmers are dealing with global curbs on tobacco use. Farmers in the USA and Brazil have already started looking to alternate crops rather than being dependent only on tobacco. Closer home in Bangladesh, tobacco farmers have begun shifting to food crops. At the government level, Australia and France have implemented plain packaging for tobacco products along with graphical warnings thus obviating the marketing techniques and surrogate advertising employed by the tobacco industry, resulting in a lower burden of tobacco users.

How hard is the youth is hit with tobacco?
The Uttarakhand Youth Tobacco Survey (UYTS-2013) has shown that 20.8% boys in the age group of 13-17 years studying in Government Inter Colleges are tobacco users and 86.3% smokers are initiated into smoking by the age of 15 years. Predictably, the 85% pictorial warning has outraged the tobacco lobby as it hits them where it hurts them the most-keeping away new smokers, most of whom are in their adolescence.

The absence of these measures is costing the country dearly too. Direct and indirect economic costs due to major tobacco-related illnesses-including respiratory ailments, cancers, cardiac diseases and tuberculosis—accounted for ₹1,04,500 crore (US $ 22.4 billion) in 2011 amongst persons aged 35-69 years. This is 1.6% of GDP and 12% more than the combined state and central government expenditure on health. The total central excise revenue from all tobacco products in 2011-12 amounted to ₹18,000 crore, only 17% of the estimated economic costs of tobacco.

Public interest
During the hearing, the court observed that in public interest, tobacco companies should act responsibly and said the awareness created on the issue would help curb the ill-effects of tobacco usage.The bench was hearing a plea filed by the Karnataka Beedi Industry Association, which sought a stay on the enforcement of the new rules, saying these would cause grave and irreparable harm to the tobacco industry.

All this is just the tip of the iceberg of a globally coordinated opposition by the tobacco industry to hamper implementation of the provisions of the FCTC (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, WHO) to which India is a signatory. Surely stern measures should be taken to impose with authority the various acts amended for control of tobacco products and punitive action must be taken against those in the tobacco industry not complying with relevant global and domestic laws, specifically on stark pictorial and written warnings, on all sides. The sale and purchase of banned products with higher profit margins should be stopped completely and further enforcement of laws to limit clear 100yards for any tobacco vendor near schools. Measures should be taken to ensure that the youth and future generations are protected and free from addictions.

Dr. Rajan Pandey
M.B.B.S., M.D. Radio-Diagnosis (schol.),
Blogger& Columnist.
Twitter: @rajanpandey001