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India's war on tobacco

Shay MeineckeMay 6, 2016

India's top court has ruled that tobacco companies must display larger health warnings on cigarette packs, giving a boost to the government's latest move to reduce smoking and curb tobacco-related illnesses. DW examines.

A packet of Indian made cigarettes which shows a statutory warning in New Delhi, India. +++ (C) picture-alliance/dpa/A. Mukherjee
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Mukherjee

India's Supreme Court recently upheld a federal rule requiring tobacco companies to display larger health warning signs on cigarette packs, a ruling welcomed by the government and health campaigners but which caused apprehension in the nation's multibillion-dollar tobacco industry.

The newly-required bigger pictorial warnings are meant to curb the rate of smoking-related illnesses, as more than one million Indians die each year of tobacco-related diseases, according to the journal BMJ Global Health.

The new rule says around 60 percent of a cigarette pack should show a picture-warning and 25 percent a text-warning. The packs should feature graphic images displaying diseased lungs, and the text-warning should read something like: "smoking can cause various cancers."

Health warnings on cigarette packs are a measure recommended under the World Health Organization's (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, with the goal of reducing tobacco associated mortality and morbidity. India is also a signatory of this protocol.

The WHO says such warnings are "a cost-effective means of increasing public awareness of the health effects of tobacco use and in reducing tobacco consumption."

Indian men shown smoking cigarettes in the Indian city of Jaipur.
More than 100 million men smoke in India, according to recent surveysImage: DW

Many experts and health activists in India share a similar view, pointing out that the current warning signs on the packs have lowered smoking and tobacco consumption in the South Asian nation. In fact, the recent rule change makes India one of the strictest in the world in displaying tobacco warnings.

Tobacco shutdown

But despite the positive impact the larger warnings may have on public health, not everyone in the country has welcomed them cheerfully. This is particularly the case when it comes to the tobacco industry, valued at $11 billion, which could take a hit on account of the new rules.

Following the Supreme Court's verdict, the nation's top cigarette maker - ITC Limited - shut its plants. "The company has had to shut its cigarette factories from May 04, 2016, until the company is in a position to comply with the interim requirements," ITC said in a statement.

The shutdowns by ITC and other tobacco firms are expected to have a negative impact not only on the companies and their shareholders, but also on millions of workers and small farmers depending on the industry for their livelihoods. This is why farmer groups have taken out large advertisements in newspapers to voice their dissatisfaction with the legislation.

Makers of India's traditional cigarettes - which are known as beedis - have also joined in the protests against the new signs, stating that the rule change could bring the industry to a "grinding halt."

Meanwhile, the Tobacco Institute of India, which represents the cigarette companies, argues the law changes could boost the smuggling of illegal cigarettes.

A woman laborer prepares beedi, a leaf hand-rolled with tobacco, in India's northeastern state of Tripura. EPA/ABHISHEK DEBBARMA +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
A woman carrying beedis, a traditional leaf hand-rolled with tobaccoImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Civil support

Nevertheless, besides tobacco companies and advocates, few others are against the ruling.

"It is amazing that…no one else has opposed the new warnings," Prakash C. Gupta, director of Healis Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health in India told DW. "There is great support from the civil society, in the media, legal fraternity, so much so that almost every lawyer arguing in court cases on behalf of the civil society is working pro bono," he added.

"Almost all court decisions, including the recent Supreme Court decision, have been in favor of the 85 percent warnings," Gupta pointed out.

Dr. G. R. Khatri, the president of the World Lung Foundation-South Asia, shares a similar view. The doctor told DW that people in India have reacted positively to the new requirements.

"In the long run, I am sure; Indians will understand that the sole objective of this crusade by the tobacco lobby is to promote their own commercial interests," Khatri explained, adding that the government also has to increase taxes on tobacco products to achieve a significant drop in consumption.

A tobacco market on the roadside in Kolkata, India. Copyright: DW/Sirsho Bandopadhyay
The WHO says tobacco-related diseases cost India $16 billion annuallyImage: DW/S. Bandopadhyay

Both federal and state governments need to develop a comprehensive tax policy for all tobacco products, particularly beedi, Khatri suggested, stressing that an increase in the amount of taxes would make consumers more wary of buying tobacco-based items.

An uphill battle

However, implementing tax policies is an uphill battle for the government, the expert noted, referring to it as a "neglected area in Indian policy."

Although the South Asian nation has an excellent record in making laws related to public health, it has a dismal record in terms of implementing them. Experts say the same can be said of the new rules.

While an 85 percent pictorial warning, in theory, could have a big effect on tobacco consumers - leading to a decline in tobacco-related diseases and deaths in the world's second most populous country - Khatri says the key to its success lies in its effective implementation. But as of today, the analyst underlined, "it is a big if."