Will pictorial warnings on tobacco products get postponed again?

Will pictorial warnings on tobacco products get postponed again?

The Group of Ministers (GoM) on tobacco warnings is meeting on 8 April 2009 and further dilution or delay to pictorial health warnings on tobacco products is expected. This is a great concern before the nation when the implementation on pictorial warnings is long due now and the deadline is very close (31 May 2009).

This meeting is scheduled at the time when in the previous month General Election 2009 for Lok Sabha were announced and the Election Commission of India has passed the model code of conduct to ensure that no impression is given or created by any political party to influence the electorate in their favour. Hence, any kind of politically motivated decision resulting out of this meeting at this crucial hour is the violation of the this model code of conduct.

Also, considering the Honourable Health Minister, Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss has resigned; convening such a meeting by the GoM will certainly have no one representing the concerns of public health and can result into giving likeminded outputs. The non-representation of the health sector in this decisive meeting will lead to biased decisions and favours to the tobacco industry.

According to Monika Arora, Director Health Related Information Dissemination Amongst Youth (HRIDAY), "The GoM in its earlier 8 meetings has either delayed or diluted the effective pictorial health warnings notified by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) in July 2006. The implementation of current mild warnings is continuously being delayed due to GoM’s intervention. This is a breach of right to information about the health hazards of the consumption of a deadly product."

Further, the issue of implementation of Packaging and Labeling rules 2008 is subjudice before our Supreme Court. This case was filed before the apex court seeing the lack of executive will to implement the said rules. Therefore, further interference in the implementation of the rules by GoM would lead to legislative interference when the said matter is pending.

According to Bhavna Mukhopadhyay, Senior Director, Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI), "Any decision emerging out of the GoM meeting tomorrow that is likely to delay or dilute the existing rules will be a serious violation of the election code of conduct as it will gift windfall benefits to the tobacco industry and political gains to certain members of the GoM, who have lakhs of tobacco workers in their constituencies".

Whereas, the Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act 2003 (COTPA 2003) and Global tobacco control treaty signed and ratified by India, the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) mandates that all tobacco products, including bidis, must display effective pictorial health warnings.

Also, a survey conducted in four Indian States by Healis Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health and VHAI reports 98% of public supporting the pack warnings and 99% supporting government action to strengthen health warnings requiring them to be large and including pictures of all tobacco products. At this juncture, any of the Government’s decision in further deferring the pack warnings will not only dishonor its international commitment and people’s will but also undermines the health of its 1 billion citizens.

According to Dr. Prakash C Gupta, Director, Healis Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health, "Pictorial warnings on tobacco products are intended to increase consumer knowledge of the deadly health effects of tobacco consumption, to encourage cessation and to discourage uptake. In India they also break the linguistic and cultural barrier, in addition to informing the illiterate population (a large proportion of this segment smokes bidis) about the harmful effects of tobacco use."

The issue of pictorial warnings has time and again affected the people working in public health as the persistent delay in enforcing the law to display pictorial warnings on tobacco products has resulted in no forward movement. It is ironical that the very same Government that has vehemently supported the guidelines on Article 11 of the FCTC (pack warnings) for the global community at the third Conference of Parties (COP-3) meeting in November 2008 in South Africa is delaying its implementation on different pretexts on its own home turf.

Before going to the 3rd Conference of Parties (COP3) to the FCTC, the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had revealed before the Central Information Commission that tobacco industry is putting "pressure" to relax the tobacco control policies (source: The Hindu, 14 November 2008).

The Preamble of the global tobacco treaty, indicates that Parties “need to be alert to any efforts by the tobacco industry to undermine or subvert tobacco control efforts and the need to be informed of activities of the tobacco industry that have a negative impact on tobacco control efforts”. Further, Article 5.3 of the FCTC requires that “in setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties should act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with the national law.”

Hope GoM members are listening!