Tobacco Health Warnings and Deterrence: Can a Pic Save Your Life?

Health News
4 min read

With a million people dying every year in India due to tobacco use, the pictorial warnings on packages of tobacco products are all set to grow bigger in size, occupying 85 percent of the print space, instead of the present 40 percent, from 1 April 2016.

The larger warnings strengthened India’s response to the growing burden of tobacco use, and pave the way for stronger measures like plain packaging.

The importance of such health warnings and plain packaging of tobacco products was reiterated at a meeting of Indian and Australian parliamentarians.

Incidentally, it was Australia which had taken the lead in this direction, and set a global example by implementing plain packaging of tobacco products in December 2012. They did so in a bid to counter tobacco use, despite tremendous resistance from the tobacco industry.


Delayed Pictorial Warnings

  • A million people die every year in India due to tobacco use.
  • India currently ranks 136 worldwide, vis-à-vis warnings labels.
  • Countries with the largest warnings include Nepal (90 percent), Thailand (85 percent) and Sri Lanka (80 percent).
  • Beginning 1 April 2016, warnings on tobacco products have occupied 85 percent of the print space, as against present 40 percent.

Pictorial Warnings Around the World

Cigarette packets are posed to display their graphic images at a tobacco store. (Photo: Reuters)

According to the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), an attempt by tobacco companies to weaken India’s commitment to 85 percent pictorial health warnings was met with stiff resistance by the tobacco control community, media and youth.

India ranked 136 worldwide, vis-à-vis warnings labels, according to an international report published by the Canadian Cancer Society in 2014.

A number of countries across the world have implemented large-sized pictorial health warnings on both sides of tobacco packs. Countries with the largest warnings include India’s neighbours Nepal (90 percent), Thailand (85 percent) and Sri Lanka (80 percent), according to the PHFI.

It is commendable that the Indian Government has been unrelenting in its commitment to implement larger and more graphic pictorial health warnings on tobacco packs. Even though tobacco companies made incredulous claims denying the health effects of tobacco use, and unleashed alarmist campaigns on the impact of strict measures on livelihoods of tobacco farmers and bidi rollers, all who are committed to protect the lives and well-being of Indians hope that the courts and policymakers across the country will continue to be cognizant of insurmountable scientific evidence on the health and socio-economic burdens of tobacco use.
K Srinath Reddy, PHFI president

The anti-tobacco lobby believes that it is only through such measures that the national target of 30 percent reduction in current tobacco use would be achieved by 2025.


An Effective Health Warning?

(Photo: FIT)

Chris Picton, MP, and Member of the South Australian Parliament and former Chief of Staff to Nicola Roxon, was the minister who implemented plain packaging in Australia.

Tobacco kills people all around the world, including an estimated one million Indians every year: which is a grave tragedy [...] In Australia, we implemented plain packaging three years ago so that no logos, colours or emblems of tobacco brands are visible. Other countries have now followed suit. Tobacco companies fought us hard to stop these reforms because they know that such measures work.
Chris Picton, MP, and Member of the South Australian Parliament

Back home, Biju Janata Dal MP Baijayant Panda has said “it is critical that we take a stand on issues that determine the health and wellbeing of our citizens”.

Averring that the enormous burden of tobacco use is one such issue and there was a need to push for policies meant to protect and warn people, especially the youth, about the dangerous consequences of tobacco, he said now that India is on the brink of implementing larger pictorial health warnings, it is imperative it learns and adapts from the Australian model.

Several medical practitioners have spoken about the need to join hands and highlight the tremendous and varied impact of tobacco use on health.

Dr Monika Arora, Executive Director, Hriday, hopes that India’s decision to implement 85 percent pictorial health warnings from April 2016 will improve noticeability and effectiveness of the warnings, and will better inform the consumers, especially the illiterate sections of the population.

She also insists that no tobacco product should be exempted from displaying these warnings, and cautions exempting bidis would “misinform consumers” and lead to health inequality.

(The writer is a freelance journalist.)

Read more on the pictorial warnings:
Put Dramatic Pictorial Warnings on 85% of Cigarette Packs
Oral Cancer in India: The Burden and the Opportunity

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