Editorial: This tobacco warning should stay

Following a controversy sparked recently over remarks by some Members of Parliament on tobacco use, a group of leading film-makers is seeking to dilute the strong tobacco control measures undertaken by successive governments. The film-makers have made a representation to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to withdraw the stipulation that cinemas run a warning scroll whenever smoking scenes appear on screen. The argument that showing the scrolls in the manner it is done affects the creativity of the scenes is at best specious. Appearing at the bottom of the screen, the warning does not in any way affect any aspect of creativity. The World Health Organization has stated that the “implementation of a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising and promotion should not prevent legitimate artistic expression”. But that cannot be an argument against the use of the warning scrolls during smoking scenes. In a draft bill introduced in January 2015, the government had proposed a few important measures to prevent children from taking up smoking. One of them is to ban the display of tobacco products at the entrance to or inside a shop. After all, much like banning tobacco advertisement in any form and other promotional activities by tobacco companies, removing tobacco products from plain view can help a lot in reducing their use by children. While it may be difficult to enforce such a ban, that is not so for the warning scrolls in movies.

There is a body of evidence to show that watching movies that have smoking scenes produces a strong impact on young and impressionable minds, encouraging them to try out smoking. The U.S. Surgeon General’s Report of 2012 has made it clear that rating movies with smoking scenes as ‘R’ (restricted) would lead to a reduction in smoking among the youth. Last year the Surgeon General’s Report went a step further and said an 18 per cent drop in the rate of smoking by the youth could be effected if all movies classified as ‘PG-13’ (parents strongly cautioned that some material may be inappropriate for children under 13 years) eliminated smoking scenes. Even if the government does not propose such laws, the least it could do is to maintain the status quo and not succumb to pressure on this count. The warning scroll is an effective way of communicating the dangers of smoking and improving awareness in general about the hazards of smoking. The government’s commitment to waging war against tobacco use took a severe beating when it failed to introduce pictorial warnings in an effective size on tobacco product packaging. Those in the 15-24 year group account for over 27 per cent of tobacco consumption in India; withdrawing the stipulation to display the warning message will inevitably increase that proportion.

Published in The Hindu on May 23, 2015