GoM counting tobacco votes over tobacco deaths

GoM counting tobacco votes over tobacco deaths

Tobacco use is the biggest cause of death, disease and disability the death clock of tobacco strikes every six seconds globally and the product kills nine lakh Indians every year. Since the first notification of the pictorial health warnings in July 2006, nearly 26,52,500 Indians have died from tobacco-related diseases.

Studies point that forewarning tobacco users of the ill-effects of tobacco use through pictorial health warnings is one of the most effective measures to contain tobacco use and the consequent death, disease and disability. Evidence from countries having pictorial health warnings have revealed that larger, comprehensive warnings on tobacco packages are more likely to be noticed and rated as effective by tobacco users and contribute to reduction in tobacco use, since more people are willing to quit tobacco after repeatedly seeing the warnings.

However, it seems politics has overtaken scientific evidence and abandoned public health commitments, to sound a retreat from the implementation of a tested measure against a known pandemic. The GoM, mostly comprising of the prominent candidates contesting in the general elections for the 15th Lok Sabha, in the absence of the former Health Minister and under pressure from the tobacco industry – there is no reason to believe otherwise – has disregarded all scientific evidence, undermined an international treaty (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control-FCTC) obligation and transgressed the Model Code of Conduct to derail an important public health measure.

The civil society alliance for tobacco control in India had already voiced this concern when the GoM sought to meet on April 8, though it seems the Election Commission did not grant the permission for the GoM to convene. But no one would have ever imagined that the GoM could go back and alter the minutes of its February 3 meeting to oblige the tobacco industry and to influence the voters in their tobacco dependent constituencies.

It is shocking to believe that the apprehensions expressed by the former Health Minister on Saturday (he has said, “The minutes of that (GoM February 3, 2009) meeting seems to be changed after I quit the government”) have come true. Such a hasty decision by the GoM and the consequent notification by the Ministry of Health is a serious concern for the Government of India and the Election Commission of India should take notice of this politically motivated move and initiate immediate corrective action to uphold the democratic ethos and practices of the country and save an important public health measure from being needlessly diluted.

For very short term political considerations, the GoM must not be allowed to drag the country back from its commitment by diluting rules, breaking promises and endangering India’s image before the international community. The global public health movement which previously applauded and honoured India for its pro-people actions to curtail tobacco consumption will now react with dismay as the Government dishonours its commitments. Besides, this is contrary to the standards set by a pro-public health Government which is responsible for the launch of the National Rural Health Mission and the National Tobacco Control Programme during its regime.

It is unfortunate that the GoM since its constitution, in early 2007, has already delayed the implementation of the pictorial warnings for two years and during this time diluted stronger warnings for milder ones, reduced size of the warnings from 50% of the principal display area to 40% besides exempting large packs from the purview of the packaging labeling rules. As if all this was not sufficient in itself to negate the efficacy of the pictorial warnings, the GoM on Sunday (May 3) cast a death blow to the warnings by making them appear only on one side of the pack - thereby scaling them down to 20% of the principal display area which is below the minimum standard set (30% of the principal display areas) by the FCTC - and only on the packages meant for retail sales.

Evidence from countries like Panama and Brazil with warnings restricted to a single side indicates that industry sabotages the initiative by advising retailers to stack the packs on the retail shelves in a manner that hides the warnings from public view. Further, even as Parties to the FCTC, including India are negotiating a protocol to curb illicit tobacco trade, health warnings on wholesale and export packages are a key marker to track and trace illegal tobacco products across the borders.

The apparent urgency of the GoM to revisit and alter the rules pertaining to the pictorial warnings at a time when the general elections are in progress, with the Model Code of Conduct in force, and above all when the implementation of the rules was to be considered by the Supreme Court of India only two days later (Tuesday, May 5), is uncalled for and amounts to a colourable exercise of power.

The tobacco control community strongly condemns this devious decision by the GoM to dilute and amend the pictorial warnings notification that was to come into force from, May 31, 2009, the World No Tobacco Day the theme of which, ironically, is tobacco pack warnings. We appeal to the Prime Minister of India to urgently intervene and prevent this repudiation of public interest. While politicians may count their success in terms of votes gained, statesmen should count their success in terms of lives saved.

- Citizen News Service (CNS)

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