Home / Politics / Policy /  Govt move to defer deadline on tobacco warnings faces criticism

New Delhi: The health ministry’s decision to defer its 1 April deadline for increasing the size of pictorial warnings on tobacco products has shocked anti-tobacco activists, said a coalition of national, international non-governmental organizations in a joint press conference on Tuesday.

The move came a day after Dilip Gandhi, a Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament (MP) from Maharashtra and head of a parliamentary panel, stated there was no Indian study to confirm that use of tobacco products causes cancer.

“We are disappointed by this decision and shocked that the health ministry has revoked its decision because it may have a financial impact on revenue of the tobacco industry. Any country, which is serious about the socioeconomic development of its citizens, will not take unjustified one-sided decisions of this nature," said Alok Mukhopadhyay, chief executive of Voluntary Health Association of India.

The health ministry had on 15 October announced that the new pictorial health warnings for tobacco products from 1 April 2015 would have to devote at least 85% of the surface areas of all tobacco products (on both sides) to graphically and literally represent the statutory warning.

This was done under the Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, or Cotpa, of 2003, one of the most comprehensive laws enacted by the Indian government to reduce tobacco consumption in India. Cotpa was enacted as a part of an international treaty by World Health Organization (WHO) called the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and it prohibits smoking in public places; sale of tobacco products to minors; and mandates tobacco manufacturers to devote between 30-50% of the surface area on cigarette packs to graphic pictorial warnings.

Reacting to Gandhi’s comment, Supriya Sule, Nationalist Congress Party MP from Pune, who chaired the joint press conference, said, “tobacco consumption and cancer is way above politics. It is unfortunate that my colleague said this but the facts or evidences are not up for debate. My father is a cancer survivor and we will fight this battle together. We are not asking the government to altogether ban tobacco products but, in a phased manner, crop patterns have to be changed and people involved in this industry need to be given viable employment options".

Gandhi’s comments drew flak from the scientific community as well with P.C. Gupta, director of Healis-Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health, who said that the statement by Gandhi “makes us hang our heads in shame".

“It conveys that the high-level policymakers of India have little scientific competence. When the whole world has agreed on the health effects of tobacco, even the tobacco industry does not contest those conclusions now and the MoHFW (ministry of health and family welfare) has already published numerous documents describing health effects, a demand for further study can only imply an unholy nexus," he added.

According to the health ministry, India has the highest prevalence of oral cancer globally, with 75,000-80,000 new cases of oral cancers being reported every year. A recent study done by the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) estimated that the total economic costs attributable to tobacco use from all diseases in India in the year 2011 amounted to 1.05 trillion— 12% more than the combined state and central government expenditure on health care in the same year.

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