Towards tobacco control…Better Late Than Never

Photo Credit: Carolyn Kavita
Carolyn Kavita Tauro, CNS Correspondent, India
For those who have been fighting for tobacco control, Wednesday the 15th of October was a step ahead when the Health Minister of India announced that, come 1st April 2015, graphic and text warnings (which reflect the adverse effects of smoking and are meant to act as a deterrent to the buyers) will cover up to 85% of space on both sides of cigarette packs and other tobacco products. 60% space will be devoted to pictorial warnings while 25% will be covered by textual warnings. 

This announcement comes close to the heels of a new report ‘The Cigarette Package Health Warnings: International Status Report 2014’ released in Moscow at the ongoing sixth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) which said that though India was one of the first countries to ratify the FCTC, it had not complied with the minimum rules. 

Current pictorial warnings in India, that are printed only on one side of the packs and cover 40% of the space, had pushed India down to 136th position among 198 countries that warn tobacco users via graphic pictures on cigarette/tobacco packs.

But once the new guidelines come into force India will be at the top position along with Thailand, which already has 85% of space on cigarette packs and other tobacco products covered with such warnings. For India, this increase of 45%, although belated, is a much-needed step towards discouraging tobacco users, both current and potential.

The ‘MPOWER’ Measures
Source: WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2013
The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) works through measures called “MPOWER”. These measures include Monitoring tobacco use and prevention policies; Protecting people from tobacco smoke; Offering help to quit tobacco use; Warning people about dangers of tobacco; Enforcing bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship; and Raising taxes on tobacco.

According to the WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2013, 38% of the countries around the world had no policy on warning labels while less than 30% had a minimal policy. Out of 195 countries 104 had no policy on mass media while more than 40% had no policy on smoke free environments. Only 12% of these countries have complete policies on Advertising bans while not more than 16% of them have complete policies on taxation (Figure 1).

Will the taxes on tobacco products go up next?
In May, of this year (2014), the theme for World No Tobacco Day was ‘Raise Tobacco tax, Lower Death and Disease’. This would mean that excise taxes should be applied and increased on tobacco products. While India has notified the cigarette/tobacco industry about the increase in size warning labels on packages, is it going to take the next, and perhaps, one of the most important steps, towards tobacco control? Will it raise taxes – and raise it enough to make children, teenagers, youth and adult feel more than just a pinch before they head out for their next buy?

For the time being, situations are quite the opposite. During a travel via the International Airport in Mumbai, many well-lit hoardings of an international brand of cigarettes stood at the entrance of the duty free shopping area. The hoardings compared the prices of a pack of 20 cigarettes in India and UK, thus enticing and luring customers travelling to UK, by saying that in India they could buy those cigarettes for about one-sixth to even one-eighth of the price they would have to shell out in the UK. Does this not translate to ‘Let’s buy in India and light up six to eight times more than we usually do’?

At the Sixth Session of the COP, many governments chose public health over corporate interests towards tobacco control by ratifying to adopt strong taxation guidelines. This was despite the International Tax and Investment Centre’s attempt to convince finance ministers to oppose these control measures just a day before the conference.

Will India follow suit? Will India also say yes to not only tax, but to tax sufficiently high, and include all tobacco products including those that are specifically the leading causes of illness and death in this part of the world – beedi, pan masala and raw tobacco?

Here is hoping we take more than one step at a time towards good public health.

Carolyn Kavita Tauro, Citizen News Service - CNS
17 October 2014