Editorial: Make pictures speak

Published in the Hindu on November 19, 2009

If the objective is to persuade tobacco users to quit the self-destructive habit and to deter new users, emotive pictorial warnings alongside printed text on all tobacco products can be highly effective. The World Health Organisation recommends the deployment of “shocking” pictures that bring out the harsh realities of tobacco use. Evidence from several countries indicates that pictures that graphically depict the adverse health effects have the greatest impact. For instance, 67 per cent of smokers in Brazil and New Zealand and 44 per cent in Canada and Thailand wanted to give up the habit after pictorial warnings were introduced. In fact, a greater percentage of smokers wanted to see more information about the harmful effects of tobacco on the products, as a 2006 survey of ten countries revealed. Some countries are using innovative methods to enhance the effectiveness of the warnings. Brazil, for instance, is drawing from research on emotion to maximise negative emotional arousal; and Chile is using testimonial warnings from people who have suffered from tobacco use. The Indian government might not share the same enthusiasm, but it should do something radical about the set of pictorial warnings that will come out in 2010.

Consider the three pictorial warnings in current use: a scorpion, diseased lungs, and an X-ray of the lungs! This might be used in a case study of how not to communicate. The images confuse; they also mislead. Further, reducing the warning size to 20 per cent in principal display areas of cigarette packets is inexplicable. Pictures break linguistic barriers and can effectively communicate key messages to people deprived of education. The current month-long campaign on television and radio by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare shows how shocking pictures and tales of people suffering from oral cancer can effectively convey the vital message on the dangers of tobacco chewing. This intelligent campaign costs the exchequer a mere Rs.5 crore but spreading the same message through pictorial warnings will cost virtually nothing. Given the constant and intrusive impact on users, pictorial warnings on all tobacco products are the key to spreading the message. The government must put the public interest first and not succumb to industry pressure on a life-or-death matter.