Alarm on watering down of Pictorial warnings on tobacco products

Alarm on watering down of Pictorial warnings on tobacco products
GoM counting tobacco votes over tobacco deaths

The intervention to put pictorial health warnings on all tobacco products has again been further diluted. India’s former Union Health and Family Welfare Minister, Dr Anbumani Ramadoss had expressed his apprehension on 2 May 2009 that “The minutes of that meeting [Group of Ministers (GoM) February 3, 2009] seems to be changed after I quit the government”.

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.

The Advocacy Forum for Tobacco Control (AFTC), of which we are a founding member of, had already voiced this concern when the GoM sought to meet earlier on April 8, 2009, 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, probably to oblige the tobacco industry and to influence the voters in their tobacco dependent constituencies.

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, 2009) 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 global tobacco treaty (World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – WHO FCTC) – of which India is a party to. Also pictorial warnings are only for the tobacco packages meant for retail sales.

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 allegedly under pressure from the tobacco industry – there is no reason to believe otherwise – has disregarded all scientific evidence, undermined an international treaty (WHO FCTC) obligation and transgressed the Model Code of Conduct during general elections to derail an important public health measure.

- Bobby Ramakant