Rotation of pictorial health warnings on tobacco products

Manjari Peiris, Sri Lanka
[First published in Asian Tribune]
Sri Lanka initiated implementation of Article 11- as envisaged in WHO’s Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC)- on packaging and labelling of tobacco products, in early 2015. Eight pictures on Pictorial Health Warnings (PHWs ), that covered 80% of the surface area of cigarette packets, were introduced.

Pictorial Health Warnings

According to WHO guidelines relating to PHWs, FCTC Article 11.1(b)(ii) specifies that health warnings and messages should be effectively rotated by Parties (countries who have ratified the Convention). Rotation can be implemented by having concurrent display of multiple health warnings and messages in a set, that are changed after a specified period.

WHO states that the novelty effect of new health warnings and messages is important, as evidence suggests that the impact of health warnings and messages that are repeated tends to decrease over time, whereas changes in health warnings and messages are associated with increased effectiveness. Rotation of health warnings and messages and changes in their layout and design are important to maintain saliency and enhance impact.

WHO also states that the Parties should specify the number of health warnings and messages that are to appear concurrently. Parties should also require that health warnings and messages in a specified series be printed so that each appears on an equal number of retail packages- not just for each brand family but also for each brand within the brand family for each package size and type.

The Parties are also expected to establish two or more sets of health warnings and messages, specified from the outset, to alternate after a specified period, such as every 12–36 months. During transition periods, when an old set of health warnings and messages is being replaced by a new set, Parties should provide for a phase-in period for rotation between sets of health warnings and messages, during which time both sets may be used concurrently.

However, other than the same old eight pictures appearing on tobacco products, we do not see any rotation taking place since the enforcement of PHW regulation in Sri Lanka, which was nearly 4 years ago. 

WHO also states that the Parties should consider adopting strategies to evaluate the impact of packaging and labelling measures both before and at regular intervals after they are implemented. Similarly, the Parties should consider publishing, or making available to other Parties and to the public, the results gathered from monitoring of compliance and evaluating impact.

Then why are the same eight pictures displayed on cigarette packets in Sri Lanka without any change? Tobacco advocates deserve transparent and clear answers to allay their doubts and fears regarding attempts by vested interests to dilute FCTC compliance and tobacco control efforts in the country. 

Transparency in government dealings reduces opportunities for tobacco industry to interfere with and block government efforts for tobacco control. Unless the activities of the industry are proactively and strictly regulated, controlled and supervised, it would be almost impossible to prevent the 7.2 million deaths that occur every year due to tobacco use.

Manjari Peiris, CNS (Citizen News Service)
September 20, 2018