Picture imperfect: graphic warning on tobacco products from Sunday

May 30th, 2009 - 12:05 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh New Delhi, May 30 (IANS) Smokers may think twice before lighting up from Sunday. Starting May 31, the World No Tobacco Day, all tobacco products will carry graphic pictorial warnings like the skull and cross bones or a cancer-disfigured face or diseased lungs to highlight the hazards of tobacco intake.
The implementation of the Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products (Packing and Labelling) Rules 2008 follows a long battle between NGOs and tobacco industries. The central government had deferred the new law for six months in the wake of pressure from influential tobacco companies.

The move finally came on a plea in the Supreme Court earlier in May by NGO Health for Millions, which alleged that powerful tobacco lobbies were to blame for coming in the way of the law over the last three years.

The pictorial warning would occupy 40 percent of the space on the front of all packets of tobacco products.

“According to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), India records about 800,000 tobacco deaths every year or 2,200 deaths a day. The pictorial warnings are a big breakthrough. They will help in sensitising people about tobacco hazards and new tobacco consumers will think twice before taking these products,” Bhavna Mukhopadhaya of Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI) told IANS.

The VHAI has been pressing for stringent pictorial warnings on tobacco products since 2003 when India became a signatory to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC)-2002.

The convention imposes a time-bound obligation on each of its signatory parties to add pictorial health warnings on tobacco products within three years. The deadline for India to implement the pictorial warnings was 2006.

“A majority of tobacco users in India are illiterate and come from villages. Some even think that bidi (hand rolled cigar) is a herbal product without realising its harmful affect. So these pictorial warnings will convey the message in an effective manner,” Mukhopadhaya said.

Although the usage of strong warnings like skull and cross bones or a cancer-disfigured face is optional, it is mandatory to have scorpion and diseased lungs on all tobacco products.

“We have been pressing for stringent warnings but it is just a beginning. We need to see the effect these warnings will have. Over the time we will advocate for more stricter warnings,” P.G Gupta of the Advocacy Forum for Tobacco Control (AFTC) told IANS.

Flouting the rules would attract fines up to Rs.5,000 with or without two years of imprisonment for the manufacturer. The dealer or seller can be fined up to Rs.1,000 with or without a year’s imprisonment.

On subsequent offences, the fine would be Rs.10,000 for the manufacturer and he could be jailed for five years. The fine would be Rs.3,000 for the seller and he may be jailed for two years.

According to a health ministry official, the pictorial warnings are a crucial step to protect the public from the hazards of tobacco and second-hand smoke and also to reduce the use of tobacco by the young.

The tobacco industry feels that the pictorial warnings are likely to hit business and will encourage smuggling of imported cigarettes that are free of such signages.

Udayan Lall, director of the Tobacco Institute Indian, told IANS: “We do expect the pictorial warnings to have an impact on consumption, and coming at a time when the economy is going through a downturn, it is likely to be more severe.”

According to Lall, the pictorial warnings will increase smuggling of cigarettes into India as people will perceive foreign cigarettes less harmful.

“About 85 percent of tobacco consumption in India is fragmented amongst a host of traditional tobacco products like bidis, chewing tobacco, khaini, gutka, etc. which to a very large extent are produced in the unorganised sector and are not branded. Hence, these products will not carry any pictorial warnings and the whole purpose of introducing these warnings will be diluted,” said Lall.

The All India Beedi Industry Federation had written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the likelihood of pictorial warnings adversely affecting business.

In India, over half of men (57 percent) in the age group of 15-49 years use tobacco in some form and over a tenth (10.9 percent) of women in this age group also use tobacco, according to a National Family Health Survey conducted in 2005-06.

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