Editorial: Loosening tobacco’s deadly grip

A few months after steeply increasing taxes on tobacco products, the government has come up with another much-needed measure to contain tobacco consumption. Thanks to a recent amendment to the Cigarettes and other Tobacco Products (Packaging and Labelling) Rules of 2008, pictorial warnings are all set to achieve the desired results. Beginning April 1, 2015, all tobacco products will carry a pictorial warning and text message that occupy at least 85 per cent of the front and back of a package. The pictorial warning alone will take up 60 per cent of the space and the written message the remaining 25 per cent. With this change, India will catapult itself to the No.1 position in the world, alongside Thailand, on the international ranking based on the area dedicated to the warning. Aside from more than doubling the statutory warning area on a package from 40 to 85 per cent, both sides of a package will carry the warning; currently, it is displayed only on one side. In contrast to the completely ineffectual pictorial warnings now being used on cigarette packets and chewing tobacco pouches, the chosen images can at once shock and educate consumers of the risks of tobacco use. By also mandating that images be rotated every 12 months, the government has ensured that India follows the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control labelling requirements in letter and spirit. Incidentally, the pictorial warning that is currently being used has remained the same since December 2010 with just one rotation after it was introduced on May 31, 2009.

The use of pictorial warnings turns the power of packaging on its head — from building and reinforcing a brand, packages become a vehicle for increasing awareness about tobacco’s health risks. It is proven beyond doubt that the use of graphic images along with written messages has the potential to significantly deter people from taking up the habit and also prompt existing users to cut the amount of tobacco consumed and even quit smoking. Tobacco companies are well aware of the power the pictorial warning wields and how much it could affect their bottom line. They may well, on grounds of the health of the industry and the livelihood of the workers, seek to get the government to dilute the amendment. After all, the industry had successfully gone through the process before; it had persuaded the previous government to backtrack on nearly every provision till the warnings became ineffectual. How well the government resists such pressure will show how determined it is to win the war against tobacco. Since one million people in India die each year because of tobacco use, the government should not sacrifice proven and obvious health benefits at the altar of commercial advantage.

Published in The Hindu on October 21, 2014

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