3 May 2016
The tobacco industry has been raising a hue and cry via newspaper advertisementsagainst the decision to have pictorial warnings covering 85% of cigarette/bidi packaging. They are calling the warnings a global conspiracy and outlining the impact it will have on the livelihoods of tobacco farmers. This is a wily effort to evoke public sympathy and mislead the government.
Let me explain why I think so.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of a concerted 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.
The sole objective of this crusade are diversionary techniques to cloak the tobacco industry’s deep commercial interests in not having these pictorial warnings cover 85% of the package area on both sides of tobacco packs. From a health advocacy perspective, it is one of the best, cheapest and most effective mediums to spread knowledge about the life-threatening illnesses which befall tobacco consumers, a large number of which in India are illiterate. Tobacco is the only legal product that kills if used as directed, causing the death of one person every six seconds; half of the current users will eventually die of tobacco-related diseases like cancers, heart disease and stroke amongst others, says the World Health Organization (WHO).
Yet, until now the tobacco industry in this country has never been effectively dealt with, in spite of India accounting for one million of the world’s six million tobacco-related deaths.
Just 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 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.
[O]ur tobacco industry is inserting advertisements in national dailies rather than [supporting] the government’s socially responsible cause of keeping the illiterate and poor informed….
It is, therefore, shameful that our tobacco industry is spending more of its resources perpetuating the tobacco farmers’ lobby by inserting advertisements in national dailies rather than throwing its weight behind the Government of India’s socially responsible cause of keeping the illiterate and poor informed of their choices.
Measures such as the Government of India’s insistence on complying with the FCTC impact the quality of life for our future generations. 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.
We need punitive action for those in the tobacco industry not complying with relevant global and domestic laws, specifically on stark pictorial and written warnings…
It is evident that we do not have the wherewithal to enforce the provisions of COTPA(Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act). In many places, we still see the existence of tobacco vends within 100 yards of educational institutions and smoking is common in public places, in blatant violation of the law. Besides, the Indian tobacco industry, which has earned billions of dollars, easily escapes paying legal damages to the poor, who directly suffer by the use of their products.
Already in our very own quasi-federal structure, we are witnessing how effectively states like Maharashtra, Bihar and Gujarat have started impounding smuggled tobacco products and punishing those not conforming to the stipulated pictorial warnings. The Centre has now started adopting tobacco-control measures to give states the tools to save lives.
To raise awareness of the harms of smoking, smokeless tobacco and second-hand smoke, mass media campaigns have been developed in India. These campaigns educate people about the disastrous health effects of tobacco, encourage people to comply with and speak up in support of new, stricter national smoke-free laws.
We laud the Government of India’s move to wean away smokers and stop fresh recruits as we believe it will help curb surrogate advertisement by the Indian tobacco industry.
For how long will we allow human and financial costs to be outweighed by consideration of powerful tobacco lobbies?
We need punitive action for those in the tobacco industry not complying with relevant global and domestic laws, specifically on stark pictorial and written warnings, on all sides.